The Morton Arboretum logo

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
Native Locale: 
  • Chicago area
  • Illinois
  • North America
Planting Site: 
  • Residential and parks
  • City parkway
  • Wide median
Landscape Uses: 
  • Specimen
  • Shade
  • Parkway/street
Size Range: 
  • Large tree (more than 40 feet)
Mature Height: 
50-70 feet
Mature Width: 
40-50 feet
Light Exposure: 
  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Partial sun/shade (4-6 hrs light daily)
  • Full shade (4 hrs or less of light daily)
Hardiness Zones: 
  • Zone 4
  • Zone 5
  • Zone 6
  • Zone 7
  • Zone 8
  • Zone 9
Soil Preference: 
  • Acid soil
  • Moist, well-drained soil
Acid Soils: 
  • Prefers
Alkaline Soils: 
  • Tolerant
Salt Spray: 
  • Tolerant
Soil Salt: 
  • Intolerant
Drought Conditions: 
  • Intolerant
Poor Drainage: 
  • Intolerant
Planting Considerations: 
  • May be difficult to find in nurseries
  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
Ornamental Interest: 
  • Fall color
Season of Interest: 
  • Early fall
  • Mid fall
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • Inconspicuous
Shape or Form: 
  • Oval
  • Round
  • Upright
Growth Rate: 
  • Slow
Transplants Well: 
  • No
  • Cavity-nesting birds
  • Game birds
  • Migrant birds
  • Small mammals
  • Songbirds
More Information: 

Tree & Plant Care

Bitternut Hickory prefers deep, moist well-drained soils, 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

Disease, pest and problem resistance

Tolerant of black walnut toxicity.

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.

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.