About the Shagbark Hickory Leaf

Every fall, shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) leaves bring a golden glow to hardwood forests across the eastern United States. After a summer spent making sugar to fuel the latest crop of hickory nuts, they’ve lost the green pigment needed for photosynthesis. Soon they’ll be on the ground, breaking down into soil-enhancing nutrients. And so it goes, in the life of a shagbark hickory leaf.



In late winter, shagbark hickories push out tan, teardrop-shaped leaf buds covered in purplish scales. As temperatures warm, the buds begin swelling with sugary sap. The scales peel back like petals, and the new leaves unfurl with five to seven leaflets connected to a central stem, or rachis. Each newly opened leaflet has:

  • A yellowish-green upper surface.
  • A paler green, lightly haired lower surface.
  • Shallow-toothed edges with two or three tufts of tiny hairs per tooth. They’re the clearest clue to the tree’s identity, because only shagbark hickory leaflets have them.


As a shagbark hickory leaf matures, its leaflets’ upper surfaces become shiny and medium to deep green. Its lower ones remains dull and pale green while shedding most of its hairs except for thin, short ones along the veins.


The leaf’s green chlorophyll pigment traps sunlight, then combines it with water and carbon dioxide in sugars that fuel the tree. The tree’s roots and vascular system deliver nutrients and water to the leaf so it can continue functioning. The exchanges continue until shortening daylight hours signal them to stop.

Fun Fact

In mid- to late summer, shagbark hickory leaves often host one of North America’s largest caterpillars, the ferocious-looking (but entirely harmless) blue-green hickory horned devil. It grows up to 5.5 inches long, with four curved, black-tipped orange spines protruding from behind its head.


Once a shagbark hickory’s nuts have matured and fallen, its task of ensuring the next generation is completed for the year. Sometime in fall, depending on where in USDA zones 4 through 8 it grows, the tree begin preparing for dormancy.

The Abscission Zone

The area where the leaf’s stem, or petiole, connects to its twig is the abscission zone. It contains specialized connective tissue designed to break apart easily. In fall, the tree seals off the connection between the petiole and twig. The abscission zone breaks apart, severing the pipeline that carried water and nutrients to the leaf and sugars from the leaf to the tree.

Leaf Death

Deprived of water and food, the leaf begins to die. Its chlorophyll fades, revealing the golden-yellow pigment beneath. Eventually, its surfaces and stem become brown and brittle and it drops from the tree.

Text: Garden.eco