TREES & plants

Bitternut Hickory

Bitternut hickory is a large north American native tree, best reserved for larger landscapes. It has large, compound leaves, a 1-inch, 4-part nut, and yellow fall color. Like all hickories, debris from its fruit drops from late summer throughout autumn, making fall cleanup in urban areas more challenging.

Botanical name: 
Carya cordiformis
All Common Names: 
Bitternut Hickory, Bitternut, Swamp Hickory
Family (English): 
Family (Botanic): 
Tree or Plant Type: 
  • Tree
  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
Native Locale: 
  • Chicago area
  • Illinois
  • North America
Hardiness Zones: 
  • Zone 4
  • Zone 5
  • Zone 6
  • Zone 7
  • Zone 8
  • Zone 9
Growth Rate: 
  • Slow
Light Exposure: 
  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Partial sun (4-6 hrs light daily)
  • Dry sites
  • Occasional drought
  • Wet sites
  • Occasional flooding
Soil Preference: 
  • Moist, well-drained soil
  • Wet soil
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • Inconspicuous
Size Range: 
  • Large tree (more than 40 feet)
Shape or Form: 
  • Round
  • Upright
Landscape Uses: 
  • Specimen
  • Shade
Time of Year: 
  • Early fall
  • Mid fall
More Information: 

Size and Form

50 to 75 feet high and 30 to 40 feet wide; upright, oval form

Tree & Plant Care

Bitternut Hickory prefers deep, moist soils that range from poorly drained to well-drained, but is often found in drier conditions.
Spring transplant only; develops a  long taproot, making it difficult to transplant.
Like all hickories, debris from its fruit drop from late summer throughout autumn, making fall cleanup in urban areas more challenging.

Disease, pests, and problems

No serious problems

Native geographic location and habitat
Bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis)Bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis)photo: John Hagstrom

C-Value: 7
Commonly found in low, wet areas, but can also grow in dry upland sites.

Attracts birds & butterflies

Larval host for the banded hairstreak butterfly.

Bark color and texture 

Gray green bark with tight narrow ridges; older bark scaly.
Bright yellow terminal buds, showy in winter.

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture

Alternate, compound leaves have 7-11  lance-shaped leaflets
Leaves yellow-green with serrate margins, paler underneath.
Fall color is yellow brown.

Bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis)Bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) flowersphoto: John Hagstrom

Flower arrangement, shape, and size

Relatively inconspicuous; tiny male flowers in drooping clusters of catkins; small green female flowers in spikes.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

Fruits  are nuts with four-winged husks and are thin-shelled.
Bitter nut, non-edible.