How to Identify Hickory Nuts

Nuts are a delicious source of protein.
Nuts are a delicious source of protein. (Image: Mixed Nuts image by Amanda White from

Hickory nuts are the delicious fruit of the hickory tree, and they are not difficult to identify. You can find many varieties of hickory trees in the United States, but the two with the best-tasting nuts are the Carya illinoinensis (pecan) and the Carya laciniosa (kingnut). Hickory trees are deciduous and grow to heights of 50 to 80 feet. The leaves are compound and alternate along the limbs. They are toothed around the edges and have five to nine leaflets. These leaflets grow 6 inches to 14 inches in length.

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Carya Illinoinensis

Find this type of hickory tree in bottomland forest areas.

Look for a thin husk with four narrow leaves surrounding the Carya illinoinensis nut.

Search for nuts that grow in clusters of three to six nuts and have an elongated shape. This nut is dark brown in color, rounded at the base and pointed at the tip end.

Find nuts that are hairy-looking and appear to be 1-1/2 inches to 2 inches in length, according to the Vanderbilt University website.

Taste the nut—the pecan variety of the hickory nut is slightly oily, with a sweet flavor.

Carya Laciniosa

Identify the kingnut by recognizing that it is the largest of the hickory nuts. If it is 1-3/4 inches to 2-1/2 inches in length and 1-1/2 inches wide, you will know it is a kingnut.

Look for a thick husk that splits readily when the nut is ripe. It typically appears singly or in a pair.

Analyze the husk. It is usually quite thick in this type of hickory nut.

Look at the meat of the nut. A kingnut is generally flattened somewhat and has ridges.

Taste the nut. It is the sweetest of the hickory nuts.

Tips & Warnings

  • Hickory nuts are delicious eaten alone or baked in candies or quick breads.
  • The bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) and the pignut hickory (Carya glabra) are edible but have a foul taste, so avoid these two types. The pignut is identifiable by its pear-shaped shell---it narrows at one end. The bitternut hickory has reddish-brown meat inside the nut.


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