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Tree to 52 m in the wild. Bark grey to brownish, smooth or ridged or exfoliating in small plate-like scales. Branchlets tan, slender, glabrous, scaly towards tip. Terminal bud oblong, 1–1.9 cm long, sulfur yellow to tan, with yellow peltate scales, pilose near apex; bud scales valvate; axillary buds protected by a pair of valvate bracteoles. Leaves deciduous, imparipinnate, 15–38 cm long; leaflets (five) seven to nine (to thirteen), ovate or obovate to lanceolate or oblanceolate, sometimes weakly arched, 3–19 × 1–7 cm, upper surface largely glabrous, with scattered scales when young; lower surface villous with simple, 2-4-armed hairs along the midrib and primary veins, densely to sparsely pubescent throughout, and with abundant large peltate scales and small round and 2- or 4-lobed peltate scales at first, persisting near margins at the base and apex later on; margins finely to coarsely serrate, apex acuminate; lateral petiolules 0–0.2 cm long; terminal petiolules 0.2–0.8 cm long, petiole hirsute near rachis, 3–7 cm long. Staminate spikes to 16 cm long, glabrous or hirsute, scaly. Fruits brown, 2–3 × 2–3.2 cm, obovoid or nearly globose, splitting to the middle or below the middle, sutures winged; nuts finely wrinkled. Bean 1970. Stone & Whittemore 1997. Whittemore 2013.
USDA Hardiness Zone 3
Introduced to Britain in 1766 (Bean 1970), Carya cordiformis has long been considered the hickory most suited to the UK climate. There are many notable examples in UK collections, often with an upright form and always with stunning autumn colour. This is a clear yellow, paler than that of other hickories, and trees are as reliable as they are spectacular. Colour can be early however, as it is in the United States (Sternberg 2004), and trees may be completely leafless just as other species are reaching their seasonal peak. It is also often regarded as the easiest hickory to identify, with its naked, sulphur yellow buds (now confusable with C. cathayensis in cultivation). The relatively small, winged, thin shelled fruits are also distinctive.
The species has a broad ecological range, growing from floodplains and valleys at low elevations up to nearly as high as the boreal zones in the Appalachians (Lance 2004). Young plants at Westonbirt, collected in 2014 in Missouri, have proved quick to establish, the most vigorous attaining 2.5 m in 3 years in an open setting. The species is one of the fastest growing hickories but also the shortest lived, usually to 200 years (Kurz 2003).
The common name is clearly descriptive and even squirrels are said to ignore the fruits (Dirr 2011). Sternberg (2004) encountered an exception while attempting to trick a family member into eating the ‘bitter’ nuts, though these are evidently few and far between. The wood is apparently the best hickory for smoking meats (Kurz 2003).