This article describes how to harvest shagbark hickory bark sustainably to whip up a ridiculously tasty syrup at home.
Shagbark hickory trees are not too common in my area. I only come across them sometimes.
As it happened, though, the very afternoon I learned about this process I came across some shagbark hickories on a short walk. Four were growing close together, right by the edge of a trail. There were no others anywhere nearby.
Carya ovata, the shagbark hickory, is a common hickory in the Eastern United States and southeast Canada. It’s a large, deciduous tree, growing well over 100 ft (30 m) tall, and can live more than 350 years.
Hickory has long been used to smoke bacon and other meats. We throw hickory chips on our grill every summer.
I did not know that hickory bark could also be roasted and boiled and used as outlined below. Turns out, “According to this TikTok I saw…” is valid education.
What Does Shagbark Hickory Syrup Taste Like?
Delicious! It’s just a little smoky, with its own buttery sweetness.
It pairs well with everything, and it makes a wonderful change from maple syrup.
Harvesting Shagbark Hickory Bark
Keep an eye out for the shagbark’s distinctive bark. The name is all you need to know: longer, older pieces curl up at the bottom end, peeling away from the tree like thick wooden feathers…
Notice the two shagbark hickories in the background (on the left side) of this photo, too.
These hickory trees are very slow growing. Any damage inflicted on them lasts for decades. This is hard for us to grasp in our TikTok lives. Please read on and learn how to harvest this bark in a way that doesn’t harm these lovely, weird beings.
Quick Notes on Harvesting…
Warning! Pulling large pieces of bark from any tree harms that tree. Pulling too much bark from a tree harms that tree. A tree’s bark is its skin. Removing it exposes the tree to infection, just as if somebody stripped skin from your arm or leg. Do not over-harvest any one tree. Do not broadcast the location of hickory trees online.
The absolute best option is to look at the forest floor directly around the base of the tree. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a piece or two lying right there, ready to harvest pain-free.
- Pull only small, loose pieces, very gently
- Only harvest only one or two pieces from each tree
- Harvest from several trees so no single tree is overly stressed
- Do not harvest from a tree that looks like it has already endured harvesting
- Be thoughtful — the syrup will taste better
How much bark should you harvest? I made a delicious first batch with enough bark to fill only half my open palm. Next time, I might harvest a little more. But only a little. Hickory is strongly-scented, and the process below multiples the flavor. You don’t need a ton.
Please thank the tree for what it has given you.
If you like, give the tree a name. Now you have a relationship with that tree, which is very cool.
There are five easy steps.
That’s it! A full step-by-step breakdown of the process follows…
Shagbark Hickory Syrup Recipe
This recipe is very easy to pull off, and it’s so fun to do. Here are the steps to follow…
- Harvest a small handful of bark
- Preheat oven to 350°F / 175°C
- Wash bark to free any dirt
- Pat dry with a paper towel
- Roast bark on a baking try for 25 minutes — your home will smell very nice
- Transfer bark to a stainless steel pot — use tongs
- Add apx two cups of water
- Boil until you get a nice deep color change — 20-30 minutes
- Remove bark and toss
- Strain fluid to filter any flakes
- Measure the amount of fluid and then bring it back to a low boil
- Add an equivalent amount of sugar — shoot for a 1:1 ratio of water to sugar
- Boil until sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally
- Reduce fluid by about a quarter — i.e. evaporate a quarter of the fluid
- Allow to cool then bottle
Storing the Syrup
I store mine in a small glass bottle which I keep in the fridge. Refrigerated, simple syrups typically last for several months.
If your syrup crystalizes after a while, as simple syrups tend to do, just reheat and stir to dissolve.
Realistically, with this syrup you won’t need to worry about long term storage — it’s not gonna last that long.
Using Shagbark Hickory Syrup
Shagbark hickory syrup can be used like any other syrup: on pancakes and waffles, on yogurt, as a sweetener in teas, in baking, etc.
Try it with freshly-made pine needle tea — a friend describes the combination as “like drinking the forest”.
It also caramelizes very well so it’s great for glazing pork, bacon, salmon, etc.
For an adult treat, pour some over a serving of vanilla ice-cream and add a teaspoon of whiskey.
I’m also going to try using it in cocktails that call for syrups or sugar. I think it’ll be a nice adjustment to my occasional Old Fashioned.
Shagbark Hickory Nuts
The shagbark hickory’s nut is edible. Its flesh has a sweet taste that’s appreciated by squirrels and humans every fall.
Shagbark hickory trees begin producing seeds at about 10 years of age, but large quantities are not produced until 40 years of age. Seed production continues each fall (somewhat erratically) for at least 100 years.
Shagbark hickory nuts were a significant food source for the Algonquins.
Pecans are also a hickory nut, from the pecan hickory tree.
Thanks to Alexis Nikole / @blackforager for her fantastically informative and fun account which inspired me to try this. I watched her shagbark hickory syrup video in the morning and had my first batch ready that same evening. It was so easy, and it’s so tasty. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to maple syrup!