Can You Eat Hickory Tree Nuts or Will They Poison You?

You’re hiking along when you chance upon some fallen hickory nuts. They look appetizing and you could use a quick protein boost, but you don’t know if they’re safe, edible, or tasty.

It’s driving you nuts not knowing!

Most hickory nuts are edible, safe to eat, and delicious. Many have a nutty, sweet taste and could contain up to 200 calories in one nut alone. They make a perfect mid-hike snack by providing calories, protein, and healthy fat. Cracking the trademark “double shell” takes a considerable effort, but the reward is well worth it.

While all hickory tree nuts are non-poisonous, some are incredibly bitter and/or inedible. Read on to determine which are tasty snacks and which ones not to crack.

What Kinds of Hickory Nuts are Edible?

With 18 different species of hickory tree, 12 of which are indigenous to the United States, not all are created equal. Hickory tree nuts range from the famously delicious pecan to the infamous bitternut which tastes exactly how it sounds.

Of the many varieties of hickory tree nuts, the most popular to eat is the pecan. Nuts from the shellbark, shagbark, mockernut, red, sand, scrub, and nutmeg hickory tree varieties are sweet tasting and palatable. On the other hand, nuts from the bitternut and pignut hickories are exceedingly bitter and often considered inedible.

It should be noted that pignuts and bitternuts are technically edible since they do not cause adverse health effects when eaten. However, most find the taste too extreme and bitter and prefer to leave them for the wildlife instead.

In addition, mockernut hickory nuts are rarely consumed. The hard exterior is exceedingly difficult to crack, and the nut inside is remarkably small. It’s a lot of effort for a little reward that many find simply not worth it.

How to Identify Hickory Nuts

The appearance of a hickory tree nut will vary depending on the species of the tree it grew on. Generally speaking, hickory trees have compound leaves, a straight and narrow trunk, and can grow to approximately 100 feet tall.

Hickory tree nuts have a fibrous, green outer husk that naturally splits open as the fruit reaches maturity. Once it splits, you’ll be able to see the unmistakable appearance of a classic, hard-shelled nut. The nuts will often fall from the tree once they reach maturity. Fallen hickory tree nuts are safe to eat provided they aren’t already cracked open, blemished, or show visible signs of rot.

The shape of the nut itself will depend on the species. Nuts from the shagbark, shellbark and red hickory trees are large, approximately between 1” and 2” in diameter, and round, whereas pignuts and the classic pecan are pear-shaped or oval.

Different Species of Hickory Nuts

Follow our guide to help identify what’s a delectable treat and what you should just leave.


Some flavored Pecans I bought from Cracker Barrel

Everyone knows what a pecan is, but not everyone knows that it comes from a hickory tree. You may be able to pick them out immediately from the trademark golden husk and oblong shape.

Here’s how to identify pecans in the wild:

  • Golden husk
  • Oval or oblong shape
  • Medium-sized, 1” to 2”

If you happen upon pecans, you can pick them right off the tree and indulge. You’ll know you have the right nut from the distinguishing ridges all across the nut itself. If you’re used to buying pecans at the grocery store, you will know exactly what you’re looking for.

Shellbark Hickory Nut

A Shellbark Hickory Nut hanging from a small branch

Also known as the Kingnut hickory tree nut, these are the largest and also some of the tastiest. They may be identified by the prodigious, bulbous green outer husk that turns brown as the fruit ripens before splitting to reveal a large nut inside.

Shellbark hickory tree nuts exhibit the following traits:

  • Large in size
  • Dark brown shell
  • Tough to crack

The shellbark hickory nut can be round or oval-shaped and it is massive when compared to other hickory tree nuts, often over 2” in diameter on average. A sweet kernel awaits inside the tough sepia shell, and the effort to crack this nut is well worth the reward.

Shagbark Hickory Nut

two Shagbark Hickory Nuts on a branch

If you happen across a large round nut that seems to grow in pairs, you’re likely looking at a shagbark hickory tree nut. 

The most notable features of a shagbark hickory nut include:

  • Growing in pairs
  • Dark brown or black husk
  • Splits easily

These are easier to split compared to others and the nut is very sweet. Nature gives you a great hint of their ripeness as well, as the fallen nuts are the readiest to eat. It doesn’t get easier than that!

Red Hickory Nut

one cracked open Red Hickory Nut and one unopened Red Hickory Nut in the palm of a hand

Red hickory nuts are small and almost perfectly round. The untrained eye may mistake them for walnuts, but the exterior is smooth as compared to the walnut’s trademark dimpled and ridged shell.

Red hickory nuts can be identified by the following traits:

  • Round shape
  • Small size
  • Smooth outer shell

They’re not as tricky to break into as other species of hickory tree nuts, making the sweet, cream-white meat of the red hickory nut an absolute trail delicacy.

Sand Hickory Nut

Sand Hickory Nuts

The sand hickory nut is the smallest of all hickory tree nuts, often less than 1” in diameter, and can be picked out quickly by the trademark pointed top and flat bottom.

Notable characteristics of the sand hickory nut include:

  • Thin, light brown husk
  • Flattened appearance
  • Oval-shape

The nut itself is sweet and nutty, similar to the pecan. They’re a great snack for hikers and can be used in various campsite recipes as a pecan substitute.

Scrub Hickory Nut

When it comes to hickory nuts, we do want scrubs. Coming across a scrub hickory tree is an excellent find because the nuts are delicious.

Scrub hickory nuts can be identified by the following features:

  • Grows in sets of 3
  • Almost perfectly round
  • Indigenous to Florida

The scrub hickory is sweet tasting, making it a sweet find if you happen to be hiking in Florida or other adjacent areas of the Southeastern United States.

Nutmeg Hickory Nut

Looking to incorporate some holiday spice into your trail mix? Unfortunately, the nutmeg hickory nut is not at all related to the spice of the same name. You’ll have to bring your own if you want to sprinkle nutmeg on your trail snacks.

Nutmeg hickory nuts are identifiable by the following:

  • Reddish-brown hue
  • Silver stripes and spots
  • Four ridges on the husk

It may not taste like nutmeg, but it is a sweet and delicious trail treat you’ll be happy to find.

Pignut Hickory Nut

a single Pignut Hickory Nut lying in the palm of a hand

Pignut hickory nuts are one of the most common you may come across, and they’re not tasty. Most people prefer to ignore these for this reason.

Pignut hickory nuts can be identified by the following traits:

  • Oval shaped nut
  • Light brown color
  • Four chambers on the inside

If you weren’t sure if what you had was a pignut before cracking it open, the four interior chambers are the biggest telltale sign that you’re working for nothing. It’s safe to taste if you’ve come that far to open it, but you’ll likely be sorry.

Bitternut Hickory Nut

two Bitternut Hickory Nuts hanging from a branch

Everything you need to know about a bitternut is in the name itself. If you come across these in the wild, we recommend leaving them be.

You’ll know you have a bitternut hickory nut if it looks like the following:

  • Fig-shaped nut
  • Four ridges on the husk
  • Dark brown outer husk

The four ridges may trick you into thinking you’ve happened on a delicious nutmeg hickory nut, but the fig-shaped nut inside is a big hint you’re wrong. Eating bitternut hickory nuts will not hurt you, but they are intense and often described as rancid.

Be careful.

How to Crack and Eat Hickory Nuts

Finding tasty and edible hickory tree nuts is excellent, but poses an immediate problem. Now that you have a snack, how do you crack them open to enjoy?

Many hikers and campers bring tools with them. Using a dedicated nutcracker is best, but often not part of a hiker’s standard loadout. For this reason, you may need to use a little ingenuity.

Try to locate a rock on the trail and use it to strike the shell open. The best place to hit it is along the stem, as it will encourage it to split more readily. You’ll likely find a rock, but a hammer, canned food, or metal water bottle make suitable substitutes if you can’t find anything big enough to get the job done.

Once the shell is split, you can eat them as is.

Roasting hickory tree nuts is another viable option, and you don’t even have to remove them from the shell. Simply place the collected nuts in a foil packet and place the packet on your campfire embers for 10 to 20 minutes.

You’ll hear some slight popping and detect a subtle nutty aroma as the nuts roast. Roasting does make the shell a little harder to get off since it softens while it cooks, but the reward is well worth it.

Don’t forget to bring a little salt to season with!