The name of the shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is telling of both its appearance and its utility. Mature trees are easily recognizable by their shaggy bark, as the name implies. Furthermore, the word hickory is derived from the word pawcohiccora, an Algonquin term for a ground meal made from the nuts. The shagbark hickory is a large deciduous tree that reaches 40 meters in height and can live for 200 years. The nuts are gathered in the fall in the Eastern US, from Maine to eastern Texas.
Though the trees are seldom grown commercially, their nuts are edible and are championed by those who know the taste personally. The flavor of the nut is sweet and very rich with no trace of bitterness. Besides the nuts, hickory is also a highly coveted wood used in wood-burning stoves because of its high caloric content and smoky flavor; these characteristics also make the wood preferred for smoke-curing meats. Also, extract from the Hickory bark is used in an edible syrup that is similar to maple syrup in texture, but with a savory, slightly bitter, smoky taste. To make the syrup, strips of bark are removed from the tree (this is easy and does not damage the tree) and cleaned, to remove lichen, dirt, and insects. Then, the clean bark strips are baked, either over an open fire or in the oven. Next, the baked bark is put in a pot, covered with water, and simmered for about 30 minutes. The bark is discarded and then the liquid is strained and sugar is added, at a ratio of about two parts sugar to one part liquid. This mixture is boiled until it has reduced by about 30% and is then cooled. The syrup can be stored in glass bottles or oak barrels. It can be substituted for maple syrup and used on pancakes, waffles, and yogurt, or used to flavor ice creams and sorbets. It also makes a good glaze for fish, meat, and poultry.
The shagbark hickory nut was a staple in the diets of the American Indians and early colonists hundreds of years ago. Traditionally, American Indians gathered the nuts and cured them in a dry spot for about a week. Once dry, great care and patience was used to excavate the nutmeat from the hard white shell. The shell was carefully cracked using a specific nut-cracking device and then manipulated from its shell, all while trying to preserve the nut in its entirety.
Shagbark hickory products are not commercially available (the bark syrup is sometimes found at farmers’ markets) and the tradition of harvesting the nuts and bark for home consumption is no longer widespread, even though hickory trees are an abundant resource throughout the Eastern US.