Carya ovata (Shagbark Hickory)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Family:Juglandaceae (Walnut)
Life cycle:perennial woody
Habitat:part shade, sun; dry sandy or rocky soil; hardwood forest, upland slopes
Bloom season:May - June
Plant height:60 to 100 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FACU MW: FACU NCNE: FACU
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: indistinct Cluster type: spike

[photo of male catkins] Male and female flowers are borne separately on the same branch (monoecious). Male flowers are in clusters called catkins, 1½ to 5 inches long, pendulous in flower, in groups of 3 at the base of the current year's new branchlets. Flowers are yellowish-green with up to 10 hairy stamens.

[photo of female flowers] Female flowers are tiny, clustered 2 to 4 at the tip of the current year's new branchlets. Flowers have a stout, yellowish to green, oval to egg-shaped ovary covered in minute hairs and tiny scales, and green stigma at the top.

Leaves and bark: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: compound

[photo of leaves] Leaves are alternate, 12 to 24 inches long, compound with 5 leaflets, rarely 3 or 7. Leaflets are somewhat variable in shape, generally elliptic though may be widest below, at, or above the middle. Leaflets are 2 to 10 inches long, 1 to 5½ inches wide, finely toothed with tufts of minute hairs along the edge, stalkless or nearly so, tapering to rounded at the base, tapering to a pointed tip, often abruptly so. The leaflet pair at the tip is largest, often twice the size of the lowest pair. The upper surface is dark yellow-green and hairless, the lower is paler in color, minutely hairy especially along the veins and variably covered in tiny, round scales. The compound leaf stalk is green and hairy, more densely so on the lower stalk. Hairs and scales may persist or wear off but usually at least a few hairs persist around the leaf edges. Leaves turn golden yellow in fall.

[photo of twig, buds and leaf scar] Buds are tan to red-brown to dark brown and variously covered in matted hairs; the terminal bud is oval to egg-shaped with slightly flaring scales and may be nearly ¾ inch long. The inner bud scales greatly expand after bud-break and become quite showy, resembling flower petals. New twigs are brown and minutely hairy with whitish lenticels (pores), becoming hairless the second year.

[photo of mature trunk] Older bark is gray and smooth but splits with age, peeling away as narrow vertical strips or broader plates, giving a shaggy appearance. Trunks can reach up to 33 inches diameter at breast height (dbh).

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[photo of fruit] Fruit is oval to round, about 1½ inch diameter, the outer husk quite thick, rough-textured, green turning dark brown, with 4 seams that extend from the tip to all the way to the base. Inside is a sweet nut with a hard shell.


Shagbark Hickory is an occasional to common tree found in hardwood forest in the southeast corner of Minnesota, where it reaches the northern edge of its range, though it has been planted farther north. The leaflets that become smaller towards the base of the compound leaf resemble those of the related Juglans (Black Walnut, Butternut) species as well as those of the unrelated Fraxinus (Ash) species, but Juglans have sticky hairs and more numerous leaflets, and Fraxinus have rather different flowers and fruits, and its leaflets are often short-stalked. Mature Shagbark Hickory trees may be most easily distinguished by the shaggy bark, similar only to Silver Maple, and the minute tufts of hairs along the leaflet edge. Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis) has similar fruit and leaves, but almost always has 7 or 9 leaflets in a compound leaf, no hairs along the leaflet edge, and the fruit is bitter and smaller (about 1 inch) with a thinner husk that has 4 distinct ridges. And, of course, it does not have shaggy bark on mature trees. Shagbark and Bitternut Hickory have been reported to hybridize with each other, but no hybrids have been reported in Minnesota. There are 2 recognized varieties of Carya ovata: var. australis limited to regions in the southeast US which lacks scales on leaves, and var. ovata, described above and present in Minnesota.

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More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Chisago and Houston counties, and at the University of Minnesota St Paul campus.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Ross - St. Croix river
on: 2020-05-08 22:42:00

Have seen this tree growing in floodplain of st. Croix river in scattered locations.

Posted by: Brad Nichols - Spicer
on: 2020-10-09 07:01:53

I have trees on my hunting property that bare fruit nuts that appear to be small hickory nuts about one inch and appear to look like those in the article.They are located in southern part of Kandiyohi county Minnesota. The property was a wood lot. These trees are mature.

Posted by: Stephen Brill - Washington County, St. Croix Bluffs Regional Park
on: 2021-03-29 09:26:00

I found what appears to be the inner nut about halfway down the hill on the road to the boat launch. I did not see any obvious shagbark hickory trees nearby, but keep in mind that it was halfway down the hill and could have come from up above. It must have fallen last fall and then come down the hill. Oddly enough, there were many acorns and an open black walnut shell within one foot of it. So maybe they all came from further up, and the snow and rain caused them to come downhill.

Posted by: Stephan - Great River Bluffs State Park
on: 2021-05-13 20:02:43

There are good examples of mature shagbark hickory trees at Great River Bluffs State Park along the ridge. Question for Ross or anyone else - is there really shagbark hickory growing in the St. Croix River valley? According to state botanist Welby Smith the northernmost county shagbark hickory is found growing wild is Goodhue County. If present farther north it might be of interest to the DNR. I would love to see a population of shagbark hickory close to the Twin Cities.

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