Hickories – Carya SPP.: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Sweet “Nuts” of Wild Plants

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In Ojibwe, mitigwaabaak meaning “bow tree”, hickories (carya SPP.) are diverse and native, but not very abundant in our area of Ontario. They are part of the walnut family and more edible than medicinal.

Hickories (carya SPP.), like the shagbark hickory (carya ovata) sapling that’s pictured and bitternut hickory (carya cordiformis), are two of the four most common walnut family trees in Ontario.

Related but not carya spp. is butternut (juglans cinerea) and eastern black walnut (juglans nigra), which have a minute presence in Haliburton county. The walnut family is much denser to our immediate south and there are around a dozen species noted in iNat for the province, including many hybrids. Around Haliburton, there are a few butternut sightings and a few eastern black walnut. These were all on the side of Minden and Dorset.

The shagbark hickory sapling I planted last year

Edible Uses of Hickories

Shagbark may have some of the sweetest “drupaceous nuts”. (Shellbark gets votes too! Both top the flavour list with pecan. While other hickories may be too bitter.) These ripen and start falling from mature trees in the fall, around the time our autumn leaves fall, so you can collect from the ground. Discard any with tiny holes and remove the husks. Crack with a hammer and use a nutpick. They are best raw or lightly toasted. Honey roasted is yummy. The texture is like a pecan (which is also a hickory).

You can keep the “nuts” for months in shells, or store them shelled in the freezer. They are delicious whole or chopped in baked goods, and can be ground into a flour. You can substitute these hickories for pecans in a pecan pie recipe, but use extra hickory nuts.

The nut can be ground and boiled in water to make a nut milk. Boiling releases the oil too, which can be skimmed off. The meat from this process could be reused for meal or dried out now that the oil is removed. This oil can be used too, perhaps seasoned with salt and used as a gravy.

While mature trees can be tapped in the spring, hickory syrup is usually made from boiling hickory bark to extract its flavor and then adding sugar.  

And lastly, hickory wood can be used for smoking meat.

Medicinal Uses of Hickories

Hickory is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive

Medicinal tags include Astringent, Diuretic and Laxative. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes the inner bark tea as a laxative.

Alternative Uses of Hickory

A yellow to green dye can be obtained from hickory barks. Mixed with maple bark, it produced a yellow.

It can be used for tanning leather.

The ashes of burnt hickory make a strong lye for soapmaking.

It’s a dense wood that burns hotter than any other firewood. And this tough wood is used for many tools from drumsticks to pickaxes.

The nut oil, mixed with bear grease, is used as mosquito repellant.

My shagbark after first winter
My shagbark after first winter

Growing Carya SPP.

It takes 40 years to produce nuts, similar to beech and many other larger trees. Bringing to mind that Rabindranath Tagore saying, “The one who plants trees, knowing that he will never sit in their shade, has at least started to understand the meaning of life.” Native hickories are worth planting even if we personally will never eat their nuts. Plant two or more cultivators for future nut eaters. Seedings are available at native plant nurseries. I picked shagbark for its winter hardiness.

Hickories feed a vast number of insects and the caterpillars of many moths and butterflies including hickory hairstreak (satyrium caryaevorum) and Ontario’s most common hairstreak, the banded hairstreak (satyrium calanus falacer). And our big, beautiful green luna moth (actias luna) caterpillars. Birds will feed on these insects too, and the brown creeper will like the shagbarks namesake shaggy bark for nesting.

Shagbark ranges furthest north and can stand Haliburton winters best. Join me in adding more hickory to Haliburton if you please.


And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

Stalking The Wild Asparagus (Field Guide Edition).

An Eclectic Guide to Trees East of the Rockies

Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries (Regional Foraging Series)

Medicinal and Other Uses of North American Plants: A Historical Survey with Special Reference to the Eastern Indian Tribes

Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants (Out of Print)

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