Economically and culturally important
While the wood of Missouri's white oak may be best suited for barrel staves, the wood of hickory trees seems destined to form the handles for many of our tools. Its more savory use, however, is cooking and smoking meats. The smell of barbecue on a warm summer evening is an unmistakable delight, and more often than not hickory wood provides the heat, smoke and flavor.
Hickory is one of the most common woods in everyday use. It is heavy, hard, strong and impact resistant. It is the preferred wood for striking-tool handles such as axes, picks, hammers and hatchets. Early settlers used hickory in the hubs, rims and spokes of wagon wheels. Besides its use in handles, better grades of hickory are used today in furniture and wall paneling.
Historically and ecologically important
Hickory is an important part of Missouri's oak-hickory forest. Eight species of hickory are found in Missouri. We know that numerous species of hickory were also in the ancient forest of Europe, northern Africa, Asia and North America before the Ice Age.
Many hickory species have disappeared and today there remain 17 species worldwide. There are two each in mainland China and Mexico. The other 15 are found in the central hardwood forest of the eastern and southern United States and Canada.
Hickory nuts are important food for many species of wildlife. Squirrels, turkeys and ducks all feed on the nuts, which are often preferred over acorns.
Pecan hickories and true hickories
Hickories are divided into two major groups: the pecan hickories and the true hickories. True hickories have mostly five to seven leaflets with a large egg-shaped bud at the end of each twig. Pecan hickories have more than seven sickle-shaped leaflets and an elongated, flattened terminal bud.
In Missouri, pecan, bitternut and water hickory are members of the pecan hickory group. Shagbark, shellbark, mockernut, pignut and black hickory are members of the true hickories.