Since I've been banned from the woods, I've been forced to limit my attention to the stuff growing in my own suburban neighborhood. That is to say, downhill from the poison ivy forest in my backyard. On my walk back from the bus stop last week, I saw what I recognized to be a hickory nut in its husk lying in the street. Perhaps it was abandoned by a squirrel under duress? I pocketed the nut, brought it home, and pulled off the green, multi-lobed husk. Then the little nut sat on my counter for a week while I waited for the hammer to turn up.
When it finally did, I brought the nut outside and cracked it open on the sidewalk without any finesse whatsoever. The shell and nut shards went flying all over the place. But I retrieved them all, and let me tell you—hickory nuts are amazing. They remind me of maple candy the same way pecans remind me of pralines. They're buttery and sweet. I declare them to be the best nuts ever. I mean, I haven't tried butternuts, yet, so maybe I should reserve final judgment. But then the butternut tree in my backyard has canker and doesn't bear nuts, so I may never know what those taste like. Better just to go on record to say that if you are a nut-lover, you better make it your business to find a shagbark hickory tree and harvest some nuts. (Come to find out, there are three—count 'em, three—shagbark hickory trees on the next street over!)
Here's how to distinguish a shagbark hickory tree from other types of hickories that might not taste as good: The bark is gray and looks shaggy like it's peeling off in rough vertical strips. The leaves of hickory trees look like this (shagbarks have two sets of compound leaflets and a large terminal leaflet). The leaves turn color early. In fact, they're yellow right now just as the sugar maples are turning their most brilliant orange-red. You can read more about hickories here.