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Tree to 41 m in the wild. Bark light grey, fissured or exfoliating in large, thick, persisting plates. Branchlets orange to pale brown, stout, hirsute, scaly. Terminal bud, broadly ovoid, 1.2–2.3 cm long, outer scales with longer apices, pale brown. Leaves deciduous, imparipinnate, 30–56 cm long; leaflets (five to) seven to nine (to eleven), ovate to obovate or elliptic, 9–20 × 3–10 cm, upper surface hirsute along the midrib and shortly pubescent elsewhere; lower surface hirsute with simple, 2-6-armed hairs, scaly with numerous large peltate scales and small round peltate scales; margins coarsely serrate, apex narrowly acuminate; petiolules 0–0.1 cm long; petiole and rachis sparsely to densely hirsute and scaly; petiole 6–13 cm long. Staminate spikes to 20 cm long,minutely hirsute, glandular. Fruits pale brown to darker brown, 3–4 × 2–3 cm, globose to ellipsoid, slightly compressed or not, splitting to the base; nuts finely wrinkled. Bean 1970. Lance 2004. Stone & Whittemore 1997, Whittemore 2013.
Leaves, fruits and buds of Carya laciniosa are typically the largest of all the hickories, making identification relatively simple when all of the aforementioned characters are available. The tree also resembles C. ovata, though usually bigger in proportion (and with more leaflets), giving rise to the alternative common name of ‘big shagbark hickory’ (Sternberg 2004).
Like other ‘true’ hickories, it is slow to establish and the sole plant of WECA 32, collected in Edwin Warner Park, Tennessee in 2014, stands at 70 cm after 4 years in the ground. The parent tree was of stout dimensions, with a diameter at 1.5 m of 1.2 m and fruits evidently favoured by the local squirrel population, as most hickories tend to be, with less than a dozen fruits left available for collection by early October.
The species was first introduced to Britain in 1804 (Bean 1970). Though no originals are known, the tree in Tortworth churchyard, Gloucestershire, recorded by Bean (1970) as 10 m tall in 1905 and 20 m tall in 1964 remains in good health, if partially ivy-covered. A larger example grows in the lesser-managed valley just north of the neighbouring Tortworth Court Hotel, though the tallest example in the UK grows at Aldenham Woods and was measured at 28.5 m tall in 2018 (TROBI 2018).