Autumn, the season for nuts and ripe fruits, provides a fair exchange for the flowery days of summer. The forests are drenched in color and tree limbs dripping with bounty. One such bountiful tree is shagbark hickory.
Shagbark hickory is easy to identify. Look for tall trees with shaggy bark peeling in long vertical strips. Leaves are toothed and pinnately divided, meaning that each leaf is comprised of leaflets arranged in pairs. In this case, look for two to three pairs topped with a single terminal leaflet. Nuts are green, about the size of a golf ball, with four distinct seams. Given that only mature shagbark hickory bears nuts, it may be easiest to keep your eyes to the ground.
The actual nut is encased within two layers of protection. As the nuts ripen, green hulls will begin to blacken. Using your hands, pry at the seams to remove the hull and you’ll find the inner shell. Lay the shell on its flat side, grab a hammer and give it a solid – but not too solid – thwack! Ideally your shell will crack in an “x” at which point you can break it away revealing the nut inside. You may find yourself digging into the shell to excise nut fragments and that’s okay too, it’s worth the effort.
Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is closely related to pecan (Carya illinoensis), and their nuts are equally delicious. These sweet, buttery morsels are high in calories, nearly 200 calories per ounce, which is pretty special for a wild plant food. Rich in vitamins and minerals, they provide protein, carbohydrates and fat, including the all-important omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.
Unlike many of our wild foraged nuts, you can eat these right out of the shell, although hickory nuts will be tastiest and last longer if dried upon harvest. Once pried from hulls, drop your nuts in a bowl of water. Those that float can be discarded. Pat nuts dry and spread them out on a tray beside a strong fan. Turn them daily for about a week. Once fully dried, store your nuts in the shell in the fridge or freezer for use in baked goods or granolas... or just crack and gobble.