KEYSVILLE - As children, my brother and sisters and I were taken on a yearly nut-gathering expedition to this northwest Carroll community.
There, in a picnic grounds directly across the road from my great-grandmother's house, shagbark hickories grew in great profusion.
Racing among the picnic pavilions and past the deserted bandstand, we gathered the windfall, enough to provide hickory nut cakes for the holiday baking and to flavor the homemade pulled taffy that was a favorite winter treat.
Today, as I drive about Carroll County, the memory of those times makes me especially aware of hickory trees and the beauty they add to our spectacular autumn scenery. Even with all the competing grandeur,the hickory's upright, cylindrical crown and brilliant yellow color stands out like an exclamation point against the more subdued colors of oaks and ash and sycamore.
This year has been a good one for hickory nuts -- here on my wooded hilltop the squirrels are having a feast.
From early morning until late afternoon they go rattling through the branches of the hickory trees, reaping a rich harvest to store against winter's scarcity. On the ground, chipmunks gather up the windfall and hurry back to their dens, cheeks bulging with their treasure.
Along with the black walnut, hickories are rated the most valuable of the native North American trees. Various species are found from Quebec to Florida and throughout the East and central portions of North America.
Although hickories come in a number of varieties -- shagbark, shellbark, pignut, bitternut and mockernut -- the shagbarks and shellbarks produce the largest and most desirable nuts.
Shagbarks are usually found on wooded ridges along with ashes, oaks, maples and gum trees. The young trees have smooth, gray bark, but as they mature, the bark separates into broad, woody "plates."
Shagbarks also can be distinguished by their leaves -- five leaves to a stem with a large terminal leaf.
The Latin name for shagbarks -- Carya ovata -- reflects the round or ovate shape of the tree's nuts. Preferred over those of other varieties for their sweet flavor, shagbark nuts are distinguishable by their large size and the relative thinness of their shells.
While the nuts of the shellbark hickory also are considered edible, they are somewhat less flavorful and more difficult to crack. Shellbarks prefer lowlands and river bottoms. Their leaves are arranged seven or more to a stem and are larger than the leaves of the shagbark.
The variety of the hickory known as "mockernuts" have hard, thick shells, too tough even for the squirrels. Neither pignuts nor bitternuts are considered desirable for human use.
Although many hickories are found in the wild, the trees have not been cultivated extensively. Their long taproot makes them difficult to transplant successfully, and a tree takes 10 to 15 years to bear. Most hickories produce fewer than 75 pounds of nuts a year; often they bear only in alternate years.
The only member of the hickory family that has proved commercially productive is the pecan, which is cultivated extensively throughout the South.
In addition to their nuts, hickory trees are prized for their strong, tough wood. American axes are known around the world for their hickory handles. Hickory wood has been used in the making of bows, tool handles, automobile wheel spokes and trotting horse sulkies.
For campfires and wood stoves, hickory wood is prized for its slow, even-burning qualities. Used in smoking hams and bacon, it lends a rich, full flavor to the meats.
The Native American Indians crushed hickory nuts and extracted an oil used for treating stomach problems. They pulverized both the nuts and the shells to use as a thickening for venison broth. They also pounded hickory nuts and allowed the mash to ferment, producing a drink known as powcohiccora.
As a wildlife habitat, the hickory gives shelter to birds and offers provender not only for squirrels and chipmunks but for such larger game birds as wild turkeys, grouse, pheasants and wood ducks.
If you can find a hickory tree in your neighborhood whose nuts have not already been claimed by the squirrels, you might like to try gathering some nuts for your own winter's store. After removing the hulls, allow the nuts to dry before using them.
The best method for extracting the nut meats is to gouge a small depression in the top of a log to hold the nuts in place. A heavy mallet or hammer is necessary, too, for cracking. Nut meats can be stored in the freezer for up to a month.