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Tree to 46 m in the wild. Bark pale grey, fissured, exfoliating in long strips or broad plates, persisting and curling away from stem. Branchlets greenish to brown, stout or slender, glabrous or pubescent. Terminal bud ovoid, 0.6–1.8 cm long, tan to black, glabrous or tomentose. Leaves deciduous, imparipinnate, 20–36 cm long (larger in vigourous, young trees); leaflets (three to) five (to seven), ovate to obovate or elliptic, 4–26 × 1–14 cm, upper surface largely glabrous; lower surface hirsute with simple and 2-4-armed hairs, occasionally restricted to midrib and primary veins or nearly glabrous, with few to many large peltate scales and small round, irregular, and 4-lobed peltate scales; margins finely to coarsely serrate, with tufts of hair in axils of serrations at first, often largely lost later on, apex acute to acuminate; lateral petiolules 0–0.1 cm long, terminal petiolules 0.3–1.7 cm ; petiole and rachis sparsely to densely hirsute and scaly; petiole 4–13 cm long. Staminate spikes to 13 cm long. Fruits brown to reddish brown, 3–4 × 2–3 cm, globose, sometimes depressed, not compressed, splitting to the base; nuts finely wrinkled. Stone & Whittemore 1997. Whittemore 2013.
USDA Hardiness Zone 4-9
It is also the most widespread and is the most grown member of the genus, though that is not to say it is as common as it should be.
The species is fairly well distinguishable only by its shaggy bark and leaves made up of (usually) five leaflets. Manning (1950) states that the oft-remarked tufts of hairs on the leaflet serrations of Carya ovata are one of the best characters for identifying this species, whilst acknowledging that this character is somewhat variable throughout the seasons. In spring, the serrated margins are ciliate themselves and, though the tuft is still evident, they are most evident once these hairs have fallen as the season progresses, though by autumn, the tufts may have worn of themselves (Manning 1950). As with all species of Carya, extreme care is advised when making identifications and a number of leaves should be studied in order to establish the presence/absence of this feature. Manning (1950) does however admit that some specimens he studied, which otherwise appear to be C. ovata, lack this feature, though of course this may be down to a non-typical herbarium specimen being collected from an individual.
Cultivated since 1629 (Armitage et al. 2014), Carya ovata was grown in the Tradescants’ garden at South Lambeth (Spongberg 1990). Elwes and Henry (1908) concluded that the species was not very long-lived in Britain, as none of the trees mentioned by Loudon (1844) were alive by when they wrote their work, as detailed by Andrews (2007).
A tree 70 to 120 ft high in a wild state, very distinct in its loose grey bark, which comes away from the trunk in broad flakes 1 ft or more long, each flake attached by its middle; young shoots covered with pale down. Leaves 8 to 14 in. long (considerably more in young, vigorous trees), composed of five leaflets, the three upper ones of which are obovate, often very narrowly so, and considerably the largest; the lower pair ovate to ovate-lanceolate; all long-pointed and toothed, edged when young with a fringe of hairs; glabrous above, downy beneath when young, later glabrous. The leaflets vary much in size; in adult trees the three terminal ones are 5 to 7 in. long, 2 to 3 in. wide, with the lower pair less than half the size; but in young trees I have measured the terminal leaflet 12 in. long and 5 in. wide, with the other four in proportion. Male catkins in threes, 3 to 5 in. long, hairy. Fruit borne singly or in pairs, roundish, flattened at top and bottom, 1 to 2 in. long. Nut white, four-angled.
Native of eastern N. America, where it is spread over a large territory; introduced early in the seventeenth century. It thrives very well in England when young, and is one of the most striking of fine-foliaged trees. At Kew, the leaves turn a beautiful yellow in autumn. Of the hickories producing edible nuts, this is the most valuable in the United States, but it has no value in this respect in Britain. The largest tree noted by Elwes and Henry (1908) grew at Botley Hill, Hants; it was 75 × 51⁄4 ft and supposed to have been planted by W. Cobbett in 1820. What is probably the same tree is now about 85 ft high and 71⁄4 ft in girth (measurement by P. H. B. Gardner, 1967). There is a specimen at Albury Park, Surrey, 68 × 6 ft (1966).
C. ovata is best distinguished from other hickories by the combination of shaggy bark and leaves with five leaflets, glabrous beneath when mature.
specimens: Kew, 85 × 51⁄4 ft (1979); Osterley Park, London, on Lawn, 80 × 61⁄2 ft and, in Woods, 85 × 51⁄2 ft (1982); Albury Park, Surrey, the tree measured in 1966 was blown down two years later; Nymans, Sussex, 75 × 4 ft (1985); Coolhurst, Sussex, 80 × 53⁄4 ft (1979); Hollycombe, Liphook, Hants, 92 × 33⁄4 ft (1984); White-knights, Berks., 53 × 53⁄4 ft in 1908, now 80 × 81⁄4 ft (1979); Swallowfield, Berks., 75 × 71⁄4 ft (1974); Westonbirt, Glos., Broad Drive, 75 × 41⁄2 ft (1974); Antony House, Cornwall, the tree measured in 1971 proves to be Juglans nigra; Fredville Park, Hythe, Kent, 70 × 91⁄4 ft (1973).
† C. carolinae-septentrionalis (Ashe) Engl. & Graebn. Hicoria c.-s. Ashe – Perhaps not specifically distinct from C. ovata, this differs from it in having lanceolate leaflets, sometimes three in number, and also in its fruits. In cultivation at Wakehurst Place, Sussex.
This species was described by Bean (B516, S147) and Krüssmann (K285), and was comprehensively reviewed by Andrews (2007).
C. carolinae-septentrionalis (Ashe) Engl. & Graebn.
Var. australis has slender, glabrous branchlets that turn black when they fall. Terminal buds reddish brown to black and largely glabrous. Leaves 20–30 cm long; leaflets 4–19 × 1–6.5 cm. Staminate catkins to 6 cm long. Fruits 2.5–3 cm long and wide. In comparison, var. ovata has stout, hirsute branchlets that retain their colour when they fall. Terminal buds tan to dark brown and tomentose. Leaves 30–60 cm long; leaflets 6–26 × 3–14 cm. Staminate catkins to 13 cm long. Fruits 3.5–4 cm long and wide. Stone & Whittemore 1997, Schaarschmidt 2002. Distribution USA: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee. Habitat Rocky hillsides, limestone outcrops and wet, low-lying areas between 200 and 1500 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 5. Conservation status Not evaluated.
The Shagbark Hickory is one of the most magnificent of eastern American broadleaved trees, and the source of the famous hickory wood for handles and barbecues, as well as its nuts. The differences between its varieties are rather small and technical, and var. australis makes as good a tree as any other. It is occasionally found in American collections, including one very fine umbrageous specimen at the Morris Arboretum (labelled Carya carolinae-septentrionalis), planted by John Morris some time between 1887 and 1915. This tree is over 30 m in height, dbh 92 cm. A seedling from it is growing at Wakehurst Place. The bark swirls in longitudinal plates and fissures, and is in itself a complete justification for planting this species, never mind its other fine qualities such as turning gold in autumn. Carya ovata (s.l.) is one of the more satisfactory hickories in maritime Europe, and should be planted more.