Most of our native hickories thrive in upland locations, but the bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) is a tree that prefers damper areas. Bitternut hickory is normally found alongside streams, moist lowland areas, and at the edge of wetlands. This tree prefers moist, well drained soils, but it can tolerate a number of site conditions, and it can live in soils with a higher pH. Its deep taproot renders it very wind firm.

The bitternut hickory has smooth bark when it is young, becoming somewhat flaky as it ages. Like all hickories, the bitternut develops a compound leaf with five to seven leaflets per stem. The leaves have fine serrations, and the tips are more pointed than other hickories. The winter bud of this tree does not have a hard cover, and it has a sulfur yellow color, a very good characteristic for identifying bitternut hickories. It is one of two plants that have this “naked” bud, the other one being the witch hazel. Bitternut hickories are fairly shade intolerant; they will not grow or germinate in deep shade.

This variety has the shortest lifespan of any hickory, but it still is a fairly long-lived tree, surviving up to 200 years, and has the widest distribution of hickories occurring in most states east of the Mississippi River. Like all hickories, the bitternut produces a nut for a seed. Unlike the other hickories that have a delicious tasting fruit, the bitternut seed has a bitter taste. Despite its distaste to humans, animals, like squirrels, readily devour the seeds. Seed production is somewhat sporadic, occurring on three to five year cycles. There are a number of butterfly and moth larvae that are highly dependent on hickory leaves as food, including the Luna moth.

Bitternut hickories are grown as ornamentals, and they are very wind firm, tolerating a wide variety of site conditions. While the bitternut transplants better than other hickories, their initial slow growth and relative difficulty of transplanting somewhat limits their use.

Hickory wood is very hard and shock resistant. Bitternut hickory, like other hickory lumber, is used for tool handles and flooring. It makes good firewood, if burned the same season that it is cut. Otherwise, it will become punky on the firewood pile.

Article by FCFCDB

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Nature note for 7/3/21