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The Nuts Strike Again!

Amy Kovick

Throughout this semester I have increasingly become aware and more appreciative of the trees that surround me when I am outside. I have always loved the outdoors and everything nature has to offer, but now I find myself looking up at the leaves of a tree, or down on the ground at the base of a tree, trying to find any clues to help me identify them because of this English 266 class. Before this class, I did not look up at trees very much except for one tree in particular, a Mockernut Hickory tree, though I was usually cursing and shaking a fist at it. Like I said, I have always loved nature, but not this tree. While it is a beautiful tree, this hickory has given me much trouble. With my sensitivity toward trees heightened after this semester of reading and observing trees however, I thought I would give this tree a chance at redemption and write about this species of hickory tree. After all, this tree did not choose to have it’s seed land where it did, nor did it choose to have my house and driveway built around it. So, I am using this writing assignment as an opportunity to tell about the trouble this tree has given me, and to learn something about this species of tree along the way.

My issues with this tree started 9 years ago soon after my  family and I moved into our little log cabin in the countryside, just outside Chapel Hill. The hickory tree at issue stands between my house and the circular gravel driveway. I thought the car-sized rectangular plot of gravel adjacent to the tree was a great place to park my car because it was right next to the side entrance to the house. Moreover,  the bottom branches of the hickory tree come out and down to just about the height of my car and provide great shade. At the time, I did not know that I was parking next to a hickory tree, nor did I have any idea about the huge nuts that would grow on it. Later that year in the fall, the tree started producing it’s nuts and dropping them right on my car. It made a hundred small dents all over my car. By the time I noticed the damage, it was too late - my car already looked like it had been damaged in a hail storm. My car was so old I did not plan on getting it fixed. I continued to park in the same spot until my husband brought home a dump truck full of topsoil and extended our yard. Maybe I could thank the tree for a nice grassy area with a stone walkway, or maybe not, after all I still have dents in my car.

A Mockernut Hickory tree is a common tree in the eastern United States. They grow slowly and reach heights up to 80 feet tall.The nuts produced by the tree are ½ to 2 inches long. Obviously, big enough to do damage to a car and it hurts pretty bad if they land on your head, too. My son can testify to that. The nuts grow every year but have a larger crop every 2 to 3 years. The nuts start out green in the tree and eventually turn dark reddish brown. The outer shell of the nut (also known as the husk) splits into 4 pieces when mature. You can find them falling in September and October. The tree’s scientific name is Carya tomentosa. It is also referred to as White Hickory, whiteheart, hognut, or bullnut. The name ‘mockernut’ comes from the big, thick, deceiving husk that contains a small piece of meat on the inside.Tomentosa comes from the latin tomentum meaning  “covered with dense short hairs.” This refers to the hair-like covering on the bottom of the leaves and on the branches. The leaves are somewhat shiny and grow up to 20 inches long. Each leaf has 7 or 9 leaflets that get grow up to 8 inches. They turn bright yellow in the fall. While I love the shade that the big leaves provide, the bark is my favorite part of the tree. The furrows in the bark run vertical in a neat looking diamond pattern. The tree has flowers that  bloom in the spring and grow in clusters called catkins. The leaves and nuts have a spicy fragrance that you can notice if you crush the leaves or rub your hands on the leaves or branches. The nuts smell of this fragrance as well. The wood is a heavy, strong woods which makes it  useful for many things such as tool handles, baseball bats, and furniture. It makes great fuel for fires and is used for smoking meats. The hickory tree is in the same family as walnuts and pecans, Juglandaceae, and it’s nuts are edible to people. You can even make hickory milk from mockernut and other varieties of hickories.  Squirrels, birds, mice, and many other animals love to eat the nuts and bark of a mockernut as well.

The fragrance of a mockernut was part of another one of my problems with the hickory tree outside my house. When my daughter was preschool age, she loved to collect any kind of nut, acorn, pinecone, or leaf that she could find in abundance. She would go into the yard with her bucket, or some tupperware she found around the house, and fill it up. When the mockernuts would fall, she would collect them and bring them inside the house. This is how I found out about the smell. At the time I still did not know what kind of nut it was, but my daughter knew. She showed me the nuts she collected and told me she learned that it is a hickory nut from her teacher who loved the smell of mockernuts. My daughter loved that teacher so, of course, she loved the smell, too. She loved the smell so much that she would not want to get rid of them. Don’t get me wrong, it is not a bad smell. However, I am very sensitive to smell and this smell  is very strong when there are a hundred nuts concentrated in a bucket. The smell drove me crazy in the house, but it was even worse when they made it into the small confines of my car. I tend to get carsick and a strong spicy smell only makes things worse.

Like many people, I walk barefoot outside. A gravel driveway takes some getting used to, but is doable. A ground covered in broken nut pieces is not which brings me to my last complaint with this tree. Squirrels love to sit up high devouring mockernuts letting the broken pieces fall below. In the case of my tree, this is on the stone patio that is just off my front porch, and the grass and gravel around it. The ground gets covered in sharp pieces and I can’t make it to my front yard without yelping in pain from a sharp nut piece in my foot.

After dealing with all these problems with this tree, I did get to exact some revenge. The branches hang low over the driveway, so I decided to cut the bottom few branches off the tree to open up the driveway. I stood at the top of a ladder with a handsaw. A chainsaw would have been more appropriate, but I couldn’t safely reach up as high as I needed with one. There was a lot of sawing required because it is such a hard wood and I had to wrap my other arm around the tree to keep steady on the ladder. I was exhausted and could hardly move my arms afterwards, but I was satisfied.

Living in the country, I have had many different run-ins with nature. I have learned a lot about living close to nature, and this class has taught me a more about trees specifically. I can identify a mockernut by smell.  I also know to be careful walking barefoot in the fall in a yard with hardwoods that bear big fruit.  I know not to park next to these hardwoods and, thanks to this class, I can better identify which trees those are.

Class of 2014

Exercise and Sport Science

Efland, North Carolina

Works Cited

“Mockernut Hickory.” Augusta Georgia. n.p., n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.

Tom Nagy. "Monday, January 24, 2010 Hickory Milk." Tom's Trees: Your Guide to the Carolinian Forests of Southern Ontario,     Canada. Blogspot. Web. 3 Dec. 2013.