Hickory Dickory Dock, Old Hickory, and Hickory Sticks

14 May

Carya species


You can scarcely find a group of trees more steeped in American lore than hickories, but let’s not be American-o-centric in the era of globalization. Hickories are native to China, Viet Nam, and Laos too, being examples of the sister-species relationships linking  Eastern U.S. and East Asia.  I wonder if there’s a Euell Gibbons-type guy in China who savors wild hickory nuts there.

Water Hickory nuts (by JB)

Water Hickory nuts (by JB)

The best hickory nuts are Pecans,  cultivated in the southeastern U.S., and  speaking of China, likewise there.   We even have some cultivated in Palm Beach County, although the native region is somewhat farther north.  The native range of Pecans is actually somewhat unclear, thanks to ancient peoples’ taste for the nuts.  I’ve seen them growing wild in lowland woods along the Mississippi River.

The name Hickory comes from an Algonquin word for a milky paste made from pounding the nuts.

Water Hickory in Riverbend Park (I don't know who took the photo)

Water Hickory in Riverbend Park (I don’t know who took the photo)

Hickory wood is ultra-strong, durable, and snappy-bendable.  They used to make golf club handles from it, and hickory clubs are enjoying a little retro-chic nowadays.  Today I read a (1936) article on how to select the strongest hickory hammer handle.   There is hickory flooring and hickory furniture.  Pre-Europeans and modern bowyers could debate whether hickory is the best wood for archery bows. (Osage Orange and Yew would have loyal proponents.)  The list of hickory products could go on.  In addition to tasty nuts and tough woods, hickories are beautiful.   I’ve spent a lot of time in the Appalachians and in the Ozarks, and life just wouldn’t be the same hickory-less.

Fore! (Photo stolen from Internet)

Fore! (Photo stolen from Internet)

The good news is that here is South Florida, contrary to all that “tropical paradise” nonsense, we have two lovely hickories: Water Hickory (Carya aquatica) and Scrub Hickory (Carya floridana).  The two names hint at the interesting part of today’s topic.  Our two hickories couldn’t be farther apart ecologically.  Water Hickory lives up to its name by being a soggy shore and swamp species.   (A great place to see them locally is Riverbend Park in Jupiter.)  Its natural range is across the southeastern U.S.

Or if sun-baked sugar sand is more to your liking, Scrub Hickory is the one for you.  This odd tree lives in high dry scrub, where it can be the dominant (or only) broadleaf tree.  Its distribution is limited to the Florida Peninsula.

Carya floridana. Bud.  Hickories have big messy distinctive buds.

Carya floridana. Bud. Hickories have big messy distinctive buds. (JB)

You might wonder if two species found jointly down here in South Florida are close relatives.  No.  They are in separate sections of the Hickory genus Carya.   Water Hickory  is related to and hybridizes with Pecans, which are naturally a swampy species.   Scrub Hickory, by contrast,  is related to the common widespread  Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra), which lives (among other habitats) on high dry “scrub-ish” places.

Time to speculate.  Carya aquatica is a widespread species that probably wandered from the more northern states into Florida in ancient times.  The history of Carya floridana is more fun to imagine.  It is restricted to Florida and probably evolved here.  Most of Florida has been inundated too recently to have much ancient evolutionary history, except on scrub which differs from the rest of Florida by having been high and dry vastly longer then the lowland regions favored by Carya aquatica.   Scrub has been high and dry long enough for plenty of evolution.  Now to repeat,  this is speculation, not fact,  but  Carya floridana perhaps originated  on scrub as an isolated southern satellite population of Pignut Hickory, Carya glabra, which is variable and widely distributed in Florida, although not this far south.   Florida scrub areas were figuratively and literally islands as sea levels rose and fell over the eons, the perfect setting for an isolated splinter-group from a more broadly distributed species to evolve into a separate species in its own right.  Interestingly, these two species (and some other related hickories) have the same tetraploid (doubled)  chromosome number consistent with close relationship.


Posted by on May 14, 2013 in Hickory


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7 responses to “Hickory Dickory Dock, Old Hickory, and Hickory Sticks

  1. Mary Hart

    May 15, 2013 at 3:46 am

    As far as the value of hickory for uses like making axe handles and similar shock absorbing jobs, the British equivalent is the common ash Fraxinus excelsior. One of the commonest Brish hardwoods, it is currently under severe threat from the rampant fungal diseae, ash die back Chalara Fraxinea, spreading from Europe. Scientists are striving to find naturally resistant examples of ash trees in order to propagate resistant strains.

  2. George Rogers

    May 15, 2013 at 7:38 am

    Hi Mary, Thank you. Isn’t it shocking how many beautiful tree speceis are suffering? Several years ago I was responsible for watching over the identities, nomenclature, and labeling of the plants at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Many of the specimens were not identified at the time. A lovely tree on the garden grounds threw me for a loop…an Ash that would not key out as one of the North American species. Took a little effort to finally realize it was Fraxinus excelsior, which as I recall has distinctive terminal buds. As a bow-maker I’m interested in Ash wood, as you noted strong and shock-proof. Bowyers like American White Ash and I’ve been meaning to try it. It has straight easily worked grain, and is snappy. Fraxinus excelsior perhaps has a history in U.K. longbows (?), although everybody knows Robin Hood preferred yew.

  3. Martin

    May 16, 2013 at 8:02 am

    Very nice, George. Scrub hickory is one of my faves – in all these years, I’ve only ever found ONE SPECIMEN in the park! I can’t understand how that could be. They’re so prevelant just up the road, by Scooter’s and around there and elsewhere in downtown Hobey-sound. I’m gonna do some bonsai of it when I get around to it.

  4. FeyGirl

    May 16, 2013 at 8:32 am

    Wow, I had no idea…. I’m going to have to keep an eye out! I’m sure I’ve seen hickory — I’ve been to Riverbend *tons*, and hiked loads of scrub environments — but I had no idea what it was!

    • George Rogers

      May 16, 2013 at 10:35 am

      Well, who really expects big hickories in S FL? In Riverbend, there are some large specimens on the N side of the segment of the trail that leads directly to the river, where there is swampy wet forest on the N side of the trail and a big open meadow on the south side. I think one of the trees has (or had) an interpretive sign, which may be more or less lost in the tall weeds.

  5. George Rogers

    May 16, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Martin, Yes, that distributional oddity is just plain weird. As you say, almost absent from JD Park, but tons of it a mile up the road on apparently “the same” habitats in the HSNWR, and plenty more northward. I don’t get it, but that’s what makes it all fun. I can’t think of many places in PB County to see it either.

  6. Mary Morrow

    May 4, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    Your photos are amazing! I started at the top looking for a particularly invading plant and came across your blog, the photos are so clear and so much detail can be seen. Thanks.


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