Edible Hickory Nuts: A Taste Test

I recently completed a project that I began last Fall.

On nature walks in the park in the Fall, I am frequently asked about the hickory nuts we find: “Are they edible”? The short answer is yes. The question, however, deserves a fuller response.

To say that something is “edible” is, in a sense, simply to say that it is safe to eat; it is not poisonous and will not make the eater sick. Hickory nuts are definitely edible in this sense. This is only the first consideration, though, for someone who is actually considering eating something found in its natural state. Not everything edible is something that one wants to consume. Are the hickory nuts of Eliza Howell Park ones that we are likely to find pleasant to eat?

To the best of my knowledge, there are three species of hickory nut trees in Eliza Howell: Bitternut Hickory, Shagbark Hickory, Pignut Hickory. The trees are not numerous, but in some years all three produce bumper crops and the nuts are easy to find on the ground. Bitternut appears to be the most common of the hickories in the park.

This picture depicts each Eliza Howell hickory species in the progression from green nut to ripening nut to the nut after the outer hull is removed.

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The first clue to tastiness might be what our ancestors thought when the species got their common  names. “Bitter” clearly suggests unpleasant. And identifying something as “pig feed” is not normally a recommendation for human consumption. In the past, Pignut Hickory nuts were commonly part of the annual diet of hogs.

The other species, on the other hand, was identified by its bark: the trunk has large strips of peeling bark. Calling attention to the bark helps to provide identification if one wants to locate a tree for purposes of collecting nuts.  Shagbark is a hickory that nearly everyone agrees is tasty as well as edible.

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I have eaten Shagbark Hickory nuts many times. We collected them every Fall for Winter eating when I was young. Having no memory of ever eating Bitternut or Pignut, I browsed the reports and descriptions of others. There appears to be general agreement that Bitternut nuts are not tasty, but there is less agreement on Pignut. Most, but not all, describe it as unpleasant to eat.

I decided to do a taste test. I harvested a few nuts of each species in the Fall and this February I ate some of each.

The Shagbark was enjoyable, as remembered.

I found little difference between Bitternut and Pignut. My assessment of these two: On the one hand, if I were hungry, they would serve as an acceptable source of nutrition; on the other hand, I do not intend to bring them home to eat. I am perfectly pleased to let wildlife have them (and I do see from the evidence in the snow that squirrels have, in fact, been using them for Winter food this year).

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There is an old Roman (Latin) saying: “De gustibus non est disputandum.” We should not dispute matters of taste. What one person likes another might not – and that does not make either wrong. My opinion on the taste of the different hickory nuts found in Eliza Howell Park is just one person’s opinion. But this coming Fall, when asked if the hickory nuts we step on are edible, I can at least speak as one who has tasted them.

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