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Nut Trees - The Hickories

( Originally Published 1927 )

Americans have a right to be proud that the twelve hickory species are all natives of this country. Eleven of the twelve are found in the eastern half of the United States; one, only, strays into the forests of Mexico. No other country has a native hickory.

Indians of the Algonkin tribe named this tree family, and taught the early colonists in Virginia to use for food the ripe nuts of the shagbark and mockernut. After cracking the shells, the procedure was to boil and strain the mixture, which gave them a rich, soupy liquid. Into this they stirred a coarse meal, made by grinding between stones the Indian corn. The mush was cooked slowly, then made into cakes, which were baked on hot stones. No more delicious nor wholesome food can be imagined than this. Frequently the soup was eaten alone; its name, "Powcohicora," gave the trees their English name, part of which the botanist, Raffinesque, took, Latinized, and set up as the name of the genus.

Cut a twig of any hickory tree, and you realize that the wood is close-grained and very springy. The pith is solid, with a star form in cross-section, corresponding to the ranking of the leaves on the twigs. The wind strews no branches under a hickory tree, for the fibres of the wood are strong and flexible enough to resist a hurricane.

Hickory wood is unequalled for implements which must resist great strain and constant jarring. The running-gear of wagons and carriages, handles of pitchforks, axes, and like implements require it. Thin strips, woven into baskets for heavy market use, are almost indestructible. No fuel is better than seasoned hickory wood.

Shagbark or Shellbark-Hicoria ovata, Britt.

The shagbark has gray bark that is shed in thin, tough, vertical strips. Attached by the middle, these strips often spring outward, at top and bottom, giving the bole a most untidy look (see illustrations, pages, 6, 71), and threatening the trousers of any boy bold enough to try climbing into the smooth-barked top to beat off the nuts.

In spite of the ragged-looking trunk, a shagbark grown in the open is a noble tree. The limbs are angular, but they express strength to the utmost twig, as the bare oblong of the tree's lofty-head is etched against a wintry sky.

The nuts are the chief blessing this tree confers upon the youngsters of any neighborhood. Individual trees differ in the size and quality of their fruit. The children know the best trees, and so do the squirrels, their chief competitors at harvest time.

Frost causes the eager lads to seek their favorite trees, and underneath they find the four-parted husks dropping away from the angled nuts. There is no waiting, as with walnuts, for husking time to come. The tree is prompt about dropping its fruit. Spread for a few weeks, where they can dry, and thieving squirrels will let them alone, hickory nuts reach perfect condition for eating. Fat, proteid, and carbohydrates are found in concentrated form in those delicious meats. We may not know their dietetic value, but we all remember how good and how satisfying they are. No tree brings to the human family more valuable offerings than this one, rugged and ragged though it be.

The Big Shelibark H. lacinata, Sarg.

The big shellbark, like the little shellbark, is a common forest tree in the Middle West and Middle Atlantic states. It has a shaggy trunk, stout limbs, picturesquely angular, and it bears nuts that are sweet and of delicious flavor. In winter the orange-colored twigs, large terminal buds, and persistent stems of the dead leaves are distinguishing traits. These petioles shed the five to nine long leaflets and then stay on, their enlarged bases firmly tied by fibre bundles to the scar, though the stems writhe and curve as if eager to be free to die among the fallen blades.

"King nuts," as the fruit of this tree is labelled in the markets, do not equal the little hickory nuts in quality, and their thick shells cover meats very little larger. But the nut in its husk on the tree is often three inches long--a very impressive sight to hungry nut-gatherers.

In summer the downy leaf-linings and the uncommon size of the leaves best distinguish this tree from its near relative, whose five leaflets are smooth throughout, small, very rarely counting seven.

The Pecan

H. Pecan, Britt.

The pecan tree bears the best nuts in the hickory family. This species is coming to be a profitable orchard tree in many sections of the South. Most of the pecan nuts in the market come from wild trees in the Mississippi Basin. But late years havé seen great strides taken to establish pecan growing as a paying horticultural enterprise in states outside, as well as within, the tree's natural range. And these efforts are succeeding.

Experiment stations have tested seedling trees and selected varieties of known merit, until they know by actual experiment that pecans can be raised successfully in the Carolinas and in other states where the native species does not grow wild. Thin-shelled varieties, with the _astringent red shell-lining almost eliminated, have been bred by selection, and propagated by building on native stock. The trees have proved to be fast-growing, early-fruiting, and easy to grow and protect from enemies.

The market pays the highest price for pecans. The popularity of this nut is deserved, because by analysis it has the highest food value combined with the most delicate and delicious flavor. No nut is so rich in nutriment. None has so low a percentage of waste. The demand for nuts is constantly increasing as the public learns that the proteid the body needs can be obtained from nuts as well as from meat.

Pecans have suffered in competition with other nuts be-cause they are difficult to get out of the shells without breaking the meats. The old-fashioned hammer and block is not the method for them. A cracker I saw in use on the street corner in Chicago delighted me. Clamped to the nut-vendor's stall, it received the nut between two steel cups and, by the turn of a wheel, crowded it so that the shell buckled and broke where it is thinnest, around the middle, and the meat came out whole.

The Mockernut H. alba, Britt.

The mockernut is a mockery to him who hopes for wits like those of either shagbark. The husk is often three inches long. Inside is a good-sized nut, angled above the middle, suggesting the shagbark. But what a thick, obstinate shell, when one attempts to "break and enter!" And what a trifling, insipid meat one finds, to repay the effort! Quite often there is nothing but a spongy remnant or the shell is empty.

As a shade tree, the mockernut has real value, showing in winter a tall, slender pyramidal form, with large terminal buds tipping the velvety, resinous twigs. The bark is smooth as that of an ash, with shallow, wavy furrows, as if surfaced with a silky layer of new healing tissue, thrown up to fill up all depressions. Mockernut leaves are large, downy, yellow-green, turning to gold in autumn. Crushed they give out an aroma suggesting a delicate perfume.

The flowers are abundant, and yet the most surprising show of colors on this tree comes in late April, when the great buds swell. The outer scales fall, and the inner ones expand into ruddy silken sheathes that stand erect around the central cluster of leaves, not yet awake, and every branch seems to hold up a great red tulip! The sight is wonderful. Nothing looks more flower-like than these opening hickory buds, and to the unobserving passerby the transformation is nothing short of a miracle. In a day, the leaves rise and spread their delicate leaflets, lengthening and becoming smooth, as the now useless red scales fall in a shower to the ground.

The Pignut

H. glabra, Britt.

The pignut deserves the better name, "smooth hickory." a more ingratiating introduction to strangers. A graceful, symmetrical tree, with spreading limbs that end in delicate, pendulous branches, and gray bark checked into a maze of intersecting furrows, it is an ornament to any park, even in the dead of winter. In summer the tree laughs in the face of the sun, its smooth, glossy, yellow-green leaflets, five to seven on a stem, lined with pale green or yellow. In spring the clustered fringes among the opening leaves are the green and gold stamen flowers. The curiously angled fertile flowers, at the tips of twigs, are green, with yellow stigmas. Autumn turns the foliage to orange and brown, and lets fall the pear-shaped or rounded fruit, each nut obscurely four-angled and held fast at the base by the thin, 4-ridged husk, that splits scarcely to the middle. The kernel is insipid, sometimes bitter, occasionally rather sweet. Country boys scorn the pignut trees, leaving their fruit for eager but unsophisticated nut-gatherers from the towns.

Pigs used to be turned into the woods to fatten on beech-and oak-" mast." They eagerly devoured the thin-shelled nuts of H. glabra, and thus the tree earned the friendly regard of farmers, and a name that preserves an interesting bit of pioneer history.

The range of the pignut is from Maine to Florida on the Atlantic seaboard, west to the middle of Nebraska and Texas, and from Ontario and Michigan south to the Gulf.

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