Hickories are native trees important to wildlife and to humans well before the arrival of Europeans. One hickory, the pecan tree (Carya illinoensis), is one of the few commercially significant sources of food that is native exclusively to North America. The wood of most hickories is strong and resilient. It was preferred for wagon wheels and is used today for flooring, furniture, and the handles of tools such as axes. It has a high fuel value, both as firewood and as charcoal, especially for smoking pork. Among settlers, the fruit from pignut hickory was a favorite food for hogs. Shagbark hickory nuts were a staple food for Native Americans. Hickories are members of the walnut family and, as such, have compound, alternate leaves. A compound leaf is composed of several leaflets attached to a stem or petiole. In Washington Grove, black walnut is probably the most commonly observed member of this family, often unfavorably. They drop large nuts and produce a chemical that prevents other plants from growing beneath them.
Hickory Varieties in Montgomery County
The hickories found in Montgomery County share several distinctive characteristics that also make them hard to distinguish from one another. They grow straight, taller than wide. Notably, they have alternate leaves composed of 5-9 serrated leaflets that are similarly shaped across species. The leaves turn a rich yellow to golden brown in the fall, holding their color longer than the leaves of most other trees. The appearance of the bark is one distinguishing feature. Pignut hickories (Carya glauca and Caryacordiformis) have furrowed, forking ridged bark. Shagbark hickories (Carya ovata and Carya laciniosa) have striking light gray bark that looks like it is peeling in long strips.
The nuts of the pignut hickory are 3/4”-1 1/4”, shaped like a fig with a shortened stem, while the nuts of the shagbark are slightly larger and more rounded: pignuts on right, shagbark nuts on left). Quite a few pignut hickories are found throughout town. A large specimen on Town property is at the corner of Brown St and Grove Ave. A stand of 10 trees is on a curve of Ridge Road, across the street from #326. In contrast, shagbark hickory is rare in Montgomery County and worth seeking out. Driving into Bethesda, a prominent specimen is at the SE corner of Bradley Blvd and Durbin Rd.
If you want to grow such a useful native tree, the bad news is that hickories have long tap roots that make them difficult to transplant and are nearly unavailable in commerce. By the time a foot-tall hickory is spotted, it will already have a tap root several feet deep. Thus, any hickory you see almost certainly grew on that spot. If you want to try to grow your own, gather many nuts and plant them as soon as they fall from the tree, covered with a screen to prevent squirrels from digging them up. Better yields may occur by soaking the nuts in water for a few days, then layering in a container of moist potting mix and placing in a refrigerator for several months before planting.