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The Hickories
Nature Bulletin No. 218-A   February 19, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Andrew Jackson, the rough tough uncouth backwoods-soldier who became our seventh president and ended the "reign" of the East coast aristocrats, was affectionately nicknamed "Old Hickory". The title is significant. The hickories are our most typically American trees, and the Shagbark Hickory -- with its long thin plates of light-gray bark which separate and curl outward at the ends to give the trunk its shaggy appearance -- is most distinctive. Except one found in China, and a few which range southward into Mexico or northward into Canada, all of the 18 or 20 species of hickories are native to the United States east of the Great Plains. They are among the most common and most valuable trees in our oak-hickory hardwood forests and have had a tremendous influence upon our American way of life.

The Indian chewed the swelling aromatic buds in spring as we chew gum. He commonly made his bow of second-growth hickory; made a black dye from hickory bark; crushed the sweet nuts and used them in pemmican or to thicken venison stew; used them to make an oil which was "good for bellyache". When he explored the caves to secure lumps of chert for arrowheads, he carried bundles of hickory bark for torches, and remnants of those can still be seen in some caves of Indiana.

The pioneer burned hickory in his big fireplace because, in addition to being one of our heaviest woods, and one of the hardest and toughest, it has by far the highest fuel value: one cord of it being equal to more than one ton of coal. It is unexcelled for broiling steaks and for charcoal. In winter, when a farmer butchers hogs, he likes hickory wood for the fire under the great iron kettle of scalding water, and under the kettle in which the lard is rendered. Its smoke has a distinctive pleasant smell, and the sap which oozes out of a green stick, thrust in a fire, tastes as sweet as that of sugar maple. So the pioneer used to "smoke" his meat, and hickory-cured hams are prized today.

There is no better wood for the handles of striking tools because hickory has the greatest ability to withstand sudden shocks and can be shaped, smoothed and polished to perfection; or steamed and bent. Consequently, American axes became world-famous for their helves, and hickory handles are best for such tools as hammers, sledges, picks and mattocks. The felloes and spokes of the wheels on ox-carts, stage coaches, Conestoga wagons and "prairie schooners" were made of hickory, and also the coupling poles or reaches, the doubletrees, whiffletrees or singletrees, and neckyokes. Later, hickory made possible the building of the ultralight sulkies used in harness-horse races, the buggies used for road travel, and, until recent years, the wheels of automobiles and trucks. It is used for skis, ball bats, gymnastic bars, ladder rungs -- wherever toughness and shock resistance are important. In the Appalachian and Ozark mountains, hickory splints are still used for the seats of chairs, for baskets, and for barrel staves and hoops.

The Shagbark, the Shellbark or King Nut Hickory, the Mockernut Hickory and the Nutmeg Hickory have nuts with sweet aromatic meats which are "tops" for cakes, candies, and fireside munching. Those of the Bitternut, Pignut and Water Hickories are very bitter, although relished by hogs and squirrels. The Pecan, also a hickory, has the most valuable nut commercially, the papershell varieties being cultivated in large plantations. Its wood has limited use but it makes a fine shade tree and is the state tree of Texas.

Readin' an' writin' an' 'rithmetic were taught to the tune of a hickory stick.

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