Jerry Davis: Wisconsin’s shagbark hickory tree is little-known gem

August 18, 2018

Mike Starshak, of Green Lake County, founder of the Wisconsin Hickory Association.

There are folks who partially use Wisconsin’s shagbark hickory tree. Far fewer, however, pick a few nuts but know very little about hickory syrup, the ton of coal it takes to match a cord of hickory wood, or walking on hickory floors and using hard, strong tool handles.

Mike Starshak of Green Lake County wanted to change that, and did, by helping to initiate the Wisconsin Hickory Association.

But don’t mention pecan pie made with hickory nut halves.

“It’s called hickory nut pie, not pecan pie, if hickory nuts are used. Hickories and pecans are very close relatives,” he said, “but the nuts taste different.”

The most recent concentrated hickory users were Native Americans, settlers and rural farm families.

“We’re losing the last bit of these traditions of utilizing hickory to smoke meat, make fine furniture and understand the mast (nut) cycle in these trees,” Starshak said.

Two hickories are native to Wisconsin -- shagbark and yellowbud (bitternut) -- while the shellbark hickory touches far southern Wisconsin in a place or two.

Native Americans propagated hickories, according to Starshak. Look at where the 200-300 year-old-trees are found, he said, along these peoples’routes, landings on rivers, camping areas and home areas. Some of these areas are hundreds of miles apart.

“They used the inner bark as lashings; got medicine from roots and leaves; and used the fruit husks for dyes and fish bait as a neurotoxin,” he said. “The nuts were a gift from mother nature, coming in its own packaging.

“Hickories are wind-pollinated and there is a lot of hybridization among these species,” Starshak said. “That’s why there can be so much variation in nut size, flavor and appearance in some areas. Shellbark nuts are much larger and yellowbud nuts are nearly inedible. Even the other animals leave them alone.”

Yellowbud does have its place because it is fast growing, more adaptable and can be used as rootstalk in grafting.

Nut size, shape and certainly taste can separate the two hickories, unless they are all mixed up genetically.

Like most mast trees, there are boom nut years, down years, and then some really exceptional years, such as 2017.

While 2018 has the makings of a poor year throughout much of the range, there are what Starshak calls perennial trees, which fruit pretty good year after year.

Anyone lucky enough to find a good tree this autumn should continue to pop the nut from the fruit husk or let it come out itself, float the nuts in water (the good ones will sink), dry them in the sun for a week, and crack them in November or December.

There are few vises and nut crackers that work with hickories, so Starshak recommends rehydrating the nut in water so it doesn’t shatter when hit with a hammer.

There’s a certain way to hold and place the nut and it only took me cracking 20,000 nuts to find that way, he said.

About the only negative hickories seem to have is urban planting, where the husks can get messy, but that’s a small price to pay for a tree that lives four people-generations.

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