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Bitternut hickory

A mature specimen of bitternut hickory.

Bitternut hickory is a large north American native tree, best reserved for larger landscapes. It has large, compound leaves, a one-inch, four-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.

This species is native to the Chicago region according to Swink and Wilhelm's Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research.  

Botanical name:

Carya cordiformis

All common names:

bitternut hickory, bitternut, swamp hickory

Family (English):


Family (Botanic):


Planting Site:

  • Residential and parks,
  • City parkway,
  • Wide median

Tree or Plant Type:

  • Tree


  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)

Native Locale:

  • Chicago area,
  • Illinois,
  • North America

Landscape Uses:

  • Parkway/street,
  • Shade tree,
  • Specimen

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 (Chicago),
  • Zone 6,
  • Zone 7,
  • Zone 8,
  • Zone 9

Soil Preference:

  • Acid soil,
  • Moist, well-drained soil


  • Dry sites,
  • Occasional flooding,
  • Alkaline 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

Ornamental Interest:

  • Fall color

Seasons 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

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

No serious problems

Disease, pest and problem resistance

Tolerant of black walnut toxicity.

Native geographic location and habitat

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) flowers
photo: 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.



Location of Carya cordiformis (Bitternut hickory) at the Arboretum