Bitternut Hickory: Searching for a Better Name

I was standing under a Bitternut Hickory tree the other day in Eliza Howell Park when a falling nut hit me on the head. It wasn’t quite an “aha moment” – as in the story of Newton, the falling apple, and gravity – but it somehow reinforced my intent to find a better name for this tree.

In October, Carya cordiformis, the tree usually known as “Bitternut Hickory,” gets my attention for a stately golden beauty.

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It is not unusual for the common name of a tree species to be based on the appearance or characteristic or use of the tree or its fruit – for example, Shagbark Hickory, Black Cherry, Kentucky Coffee Tree. That seems different, though, from a name that is based on a judgment of the tastiness of the fruit.

Tastes vary, but the name suggest that no one will like the fruit, with the possible result that people will not even pick up a few for their own taste test.

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Deciding that I preferred a name that is more descriptive of the plant and less a commentary on the quality of the nut as food, I began to look for possibilities. The “cordiformis” in the scientific name means “heart shaped.” This refers, I would think, to the shape of the nut. I don’t know if that would be a good common name, but I have not  seen that name used in English.

As a tree and as a fruit, “Bitternut Hickory” is often compared with Shagbark Hickory. The common name Shagbark is, of course, based on the bark. The bark of “Bitternut” is smoother than that Shagbark, but there is little about the bark that suggests a name – and I have not seen any attempts at such naming. In the picture, Shagbark is on the left, “Bitternut” on the right.

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Based on what I have been seeing this month, my personal preference for the name would be something like “Golden Hickory.”

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Unfortunately, this name does not appear in any of the articles or reports on the species.

Another characteristic of the species – and one I often use for identification – is that the husk of the nut has four narrow ridges that extend down from the outer tip.

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“Ridged Hickory” might be acceptable name, but I have not been able to find anyone calling it that.

There are two English names besides “Bitternut” that are sometimes used in the published accounts: “Yellow Bud Hickory” and “Swamp Hickory.” “Swamp” seems to me to more misleading than helpful; the tree is found in many locations that are not swamp.

“Yellow Bud” is based on the fact that the winter bud is yellowish, a distinguishing characteristic. I confess that I have not paid particular attention to this fact and do not have a single picture of the bud. However, the name is based on an identifying characteristic of the species and has been used enough that searching under this name will bring up the right information.

A picture of a Yellow Bud Hickory in Eliza Howell in October:

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I think my search for an alternative name to “Bitternut” may be over. I plan to use “Yellow Bud” from now on. And this winter I will pay attention to the buds.

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