Reflections in Nature: 5 hickory species grow in PA

Recently, Bob Bastion, of East Troy, asked me if I knew why our ancestors often used hickory wood when smoking meats to be preserved. I surely didn’t know the answer, but he did. Bob told me that he heard on the History Channel that hickory wood contains salt, which helps in the preserving of meats.

I decided to check into Bob’s answer and, after looking through several books on trees, I found that hickory was and is a favorite wood for smoking meats.

In Pennsylvania, we have five common hickory trees: shagbark hickory, shellbark hickory, mockernut hickory, pignut hickory and butternut hickory; however, there are 10 hickories listed in the Grimm Book of Trees, which includes the pecan tree in the hickory family.

The history of the shagbark and shellbark hickories goes back to Native Americans, who stored the hickory nut for future use. The meat of the nut was pounded to pieces and then placed in boiling water. After put through a fine strainer, an oily part of the liquid, which was sweet and rich as fresh cream, remained. The oil was an ingredient in most of their cooking, especially in making corn cakes.

Nut cracks were held on early farms to put in food for the winter. Although picking hickory nuts and cracking the tough shells, with a hammer, is tedious work, the meat of the hickory nut is a great reward.

The pioneers knew that green hickory wood was considered the perfect fuel for the preparation of smoked hams, and no one else ever has discovered a finer source of coals for smoking hams.

The burning of hickory enters into the taste of the smoked-cured hams. Today, if you buy a smoked ham that is labeled as a hickory-smoked ham, by law, it must be smoked with hickory wood.

The shagbark hickory’s scientific name is Carya ovate. Carya is a Greek word meaning nut, with the species name ovate meaning egg-shaped.

The shagbark hickory is also known as the shellbark hickory, which it closely resembles; however, they are entirely two different species.

The shellbark hickory prefers the bottom land and does not attain the height of the shagbark, while the shagbark is more common on either the hill slopes or rocky hillsides. The two hickories are easily identified by the smoke-gray bark, which is warping away from the trunk.

Except for the locusts, the fuel value of hickory is higher than that of any other American wood. A cord of hickory is almost equivalent, in thermal units, to a ton of anthracite coal. Our ancestors used hickory wood for anything that required strength.

Hickory was a symbol of strength in our early settlers’ minds.

Andrew Jackson was given the nickname of “Old Hickory” when he was a major general of the military. After the War of 1812 ended, Andrew Jackson received orders from the secretary of war to discharge his men at Natchez, which was 500 miles from home.

Jackson flatly refused and he, along with his men, marched back home along the Natchez, enduring the hardships, sharing the poor food and sleeping with his men on the hard ground. Because of this he won the admiration of the backwoodsmen, who said Jackson was as tough as hickory and dubbed him “Old Hickory.” The name carried him to the White House as our seventh president.

Today, he is buried in the Hermitage Garden, with six towering shagbark hickories standing guard.

To plant a hickory nut tree is quite simple. Dig a hole at least 3 inches deep, place a nut in the hole and cover it with dirt. This is exactly how deep the gray squirrel buries a hickory nut to store for the winter. Nature sure is intertwined.

Although I searched in many places, I still could not find any reference to hickory wood being used because it contained salt.

Recently, Wes McNett, of Canton, told me that he probably won’t have any hickory nuts on his property this coming fall due to the below freezing temperatures during the week of May 19.

I guess we will have to wait until fall to find out if Wes’ prediction is correct.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.