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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Tree tuesday: Nuts, smoke, bats ‘n syrup: the shagbark hickory

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The shagbark hickory is to shagginess what the beech is to smoothness. No other tree on the island of Montreal could be mistaken for the shagbark. So, when you see a tall, thin tree with medium gray bark that seems to be exfoliating in strips that measure roughly 4 cm by 40 cm, you will know what your are looking at.

That said, there aren’t many shagbark hickories on the island or, for that matter, anywhere in North America. We are fortunate that on Mount Royal on that path in the woods that starts at the northwest corner of the “T” in Olmstead Road (where one branch leads to the chalet, while the other leads to the cross), to have a fine collection of this rare tree. This is a very old trail believed to have been made by the Iroquois or earlier First Nations peoples in their passage to the highest point of the cliff edge (now overlooking Camillien Houde Road) from where they would have been able to see the comings and goings of people, weather and wildlife.

There is also a cluster of shagbark hickories in the wood directly behind the chalet just off  the cross-country ski trail that leads to the cross. Not far from them is an old trio of white pine, the largest group of mature white pine left on the mountain.

The word, hickory, is derived from the Algonquin word  pocohiquara, meaning a milky drink prepared from crushed hickory nuts. The Europeans colonists first called this tree pohickery and one still finds the word as a place name. In French, I have also seen a version of the word, something like pohicoré. The common name in French is caryer ovale because of the oval shape of the four chambers of the nut casing (see below). Notice too how the compound leaf resembles the leaf of the ash but that it has only five leaflets, as compare to the seven of the ash, and the leaves grow alternately on the branch, while the ash leaves grow directly opposite each other in perfect symmetry.

What’s curious about the shagbark and about hickories, in general, is that things named after the hickory, such as streets, bands, baseball bats, brands of chips and other smoked products, seem much more common that the trees themselves. Truth is that the hickory, because of its fantastically strong, flexible and shatterproof wood that burns at high temperature with a pleasant smell, was just about decimated in the 19th century. The wood was used for everything from smoking foods, providing boarding in the days before sidewalks, making skis, axe handles and golf clubs, to building the structure for horse-drawn vehicles, including the wheels. Baseballs bats were famously made of hickory and were even known by the name of the tree.

The shagbark hickory may have been spared more often than the other hickory common to southwestern Quebec, the bitternut (Carya cordiformis, caryer cordiforme) because of its delicious nuts. Look for the white nut shells below the tree when they fall in the autumn. Thanks to a great website, Hilton Pond Center in South Carolina for this pic. The flesh of the nut looks much like the pecan which is not surprising since the pecan is also a species of hickory.

The bark of the shagbark was used to make a syrup, not by tapping the tree, but by boiling flakes of the bark in a sugar mixture. You’ll find recipes on the internet. Apparently the flavour is smokey and not as sweet as maple syrup. The Cayuga drank the bark tea straight as a remedy for arthritis.

If you’re looking for shagbark hickory off the island, look for remnants of old growth sugar in the lowlands of sugar maple or red oak forests but not any farther north than Trois-Rivières where the tree is at its most northerly extreme. The tree doesn’t mind a bit of shade and likes to grow in the rich, well-drained hillside and valley soils. In the Parc national d’Oka, there are some old ones to be found near the sentier écologique de la Grande baie.  Like the beech, hickories are true forest trees and don’t like to be transplanted. Fortunately, the army of squirrels on mount Royal are apt nut-planters.

Now, for your homework. It’s easy. Just look up in order to see the first flowers of the trees. You will likely see the flowers of the silver maple which are those mammoth, grey-trunked trees found all over Montreal. Generally, the buds and flowers are red but may have a yellow tinge. If you see other tree flowers, please keep me posted.

Vive le printemps!

(photo by John Evans, Chatanooga State U. )



  1. Merci Bronwyn. Des bâtons de baseball au sirop de caryer en passant par les noix ; quelle richesse ! J’arrive du Mt-royal où j’ai remarqué un drôle de spécimen. Un genre d’hybride entre le caryer ovale et le caryer cordiforme . Une petite merveille de la nature , en bonne santé et pas si jeune ! Il est derrière le grand chalet près du marécage. Serait-ce possible qu’il y ait hybridation entre ces deux essences ? Merci à l’avance et bonne continuité ! Charles.

  2. Not much luck spotting other tree flowers. Some of the other maples seems to be starting. I saw some on des Pins that I’m guessing are Manitoba maples, and my neighbour has one that has all the characteristics of a red maple, except the leaves don’t turn red. Its flowers are certainly a nice crimson colour. Just yesterday, I noticed a species of willow letting its furry catkins hang free. Otherwise, even my forsythia has only a few flowers showing.

  3. Most interesting about the edible nature of the nut (not surprising) and *the bark*. Also, the anatomical comparison to the ash is well done.

  4. S’il vous plaît, il faut écrire chemin Olmsted, comme dans Frederick Law Olmsted. Cet architecte paysagiste a publié en 1881 une géniale stratégie d’aménagement du parc du Mont-Royal. Cette stratégie vise à faire pleinement ressortir le caractère “Montagne” du mont Royal. Aujourd’hui, on peut profiter pleinement de cet héritage en faisant une ballade sur le chemin Olmsted, depuis le pied de la montagne jusqu’au point le plus haut, à proximité d’un belvédère surplombant la voie Camillien-Houde. Cette lente montée offre un ensemble complémentaire de paysages forestiers et champêtres destinés à permettre au visiteur de mieux se ressourcer.

  5. Hello,

    Interesting article and I will be sure to read them all.
    With regards to the Shagbark Hickory, many can be found on L’Ile Perrot, in particular, along the cross-country ski trails of “Les Skieurs de L’Ile”.
    An exceptional display of trees can be seen within the Mongrain family sugar bush. Thanks to the owner who gave an excellent history of his family’s 600 acre property, the trees are not that old yet very massive, not more than 75 – 100 years old, having been clear-cut in the past for building in Montreal.
    Today their woods contain quite a vast array of species of hard and soft woods.
    The hickories are quite noticeable by their size which grow alongside the sugar maples, oaks, beech and lindens. Beautiful in the winter.

  6. great article!just today i saw some trees with those red things and i was guessing it was manitoba maple

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