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.

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.