I’ve got “nutting” bad to say about hickory trees.

In fact, the respect of others for hickories reached presidential proportions in years past. Both Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln were compared to the hickory tree for their physical and mental capabilities.

Republican Lincoln was described as “six feet one in his stocking feet, the lank man, knotty and tough as a hickory rail,” while Democrat Andrew Jackson was affectionately called “Old Hickory.” During the War of 1812, Jackson led a gang of Tennessee frontiersmen who were so impressed with his courage and stamina that they bestowed on him that title. Supporters of Jackson in the 1828 election erected hickory posts on their property to show their support.

With these men coming from opposing parties, it is clear that hickories are non-partisan plants whose benefits might just be the one thing that both groups can agree upon!

Three types of hickory trees are found on the Island and include pignut, sweet pignut and mockernut hickories. All three are in the genus Carya, which has its own illustrious origin. Greek mythology identifies Carya as a woman transformed into a nut tree. This was her fate because the god Dionysus was pursuing her, and her family wanted to protect her from his advances. 

If turning her into a tree didn’t make her nuts, it sure made her able to produce them. The three island varieties of hickory produce edible nuts, though it often takes a while for them to come to fruition. Only trees that are at least 20 years old can produce nuts, but sometimes it takes up to 40 years for production. Planting this tree for its nuts might be considered crazy, or perhaps just an exercise in patience.

Nuts can be collected in the fall, but you’ve got to know where to look in order to be ready to beat the wildlife that favor their flavor.  In areas where they are plentiful, a squirrel’s diet can be up to 25 per cent hickory nuts. Rabbits, raccoons, wild turkey, songbirds, chipmunks and deer also eat parts of this plant.

Native Americans made a milk or butter of the nuts, mashing and mixing them with water. They called it pawcohiccora, the latter half of the word giving rise to the tree’s current nomenclature.

Hickory’s assets go beyond those nutritious nut nuggets. Firewood from this tree is considered remarkable for producing an extended burn, high heat and little ash. Colonial naturalist Mark Catesby enthused, “For the fire no wood in the northern parts of America is in so much request.” Author Eric Sloane added that, “in tensile strength, hickory is on a par with wrought iron.”

A cord of hickory creates heat equivalent to 175 gallons of fuel oil, or a bit over a ton of coal. Cooking with hickory wood makes a treat of the meat roasted with it, and it is said that the bark of the one variety makes syrup not unlike maple.

As appetizing as foods with hickory seem, you wouldn’t want to be getting a taste of hickory tea. In Appalachia, that specialty is reserved for those who have misbehaved. Hickory tea is a nice way to say that you are getting a beating with a hickory switch.

Hickory is clearly a bountiful source of useful and edible products, but only for those dedicated to learning about them and putting forth some effort to take advantage of this tree’s benefits. For others that are not so inclined toward exertion, it is only necessary to remember Franz Kafka’s saying, “God gives the nuts, but he does not crack them.”

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.