A tree 70 to 120 ft high in a wild state, very distinct in its loose grey bark, which comes away from the trunk in broad flakes 1 ft or more long, each flake attached by its middle; young shoots covered with pale down. Leaves 8 to 14 in. long (considerably more in young, vigorous trees), composed of five leaflets, the three upper ones of which are obovate, often very narrowly so, and considerably the largest; the lower pair ovate to ovate-lanceolate; all long-pointed and toothed, edged when young with a fringe of hairs; glabrous above, downy beneath when young, later glabrous. The leaflets vary much in size; in adult trees the three terminal ones are 5 to 7 in. long, 2 to 3 in. wide, with the lower pair less than half the size; but in young trees I have measured the terminal leaflet 12 in. long and 5 in. wide, with the other four in proportion. Male catkins in threes, 3 to 5 in. long, hairy. Fruit borne singly or in pairs, roundish, flattened at top and bottom, 1 to 2 in. long. Nut white, four-angled.
Native of eastern N. America, where it is spread over a large territory; introduced early in the seventeenth century. It thrives very well in England when young, and is one of the most striking of fine-foliaged trees. At Kew, the leaves turn a beautiful yellow in autumn. Of the hickories producing edible nuts, this is the most valuable in the United States, but it has no value in this respect in Britain. The largest tree noted by Elwes and Henry (1908) grew at Botley Hill, Hants; it was 75 × 51⁄4 ft and supposed to have been planted by W. Cobbett in 1820. What is probably the same tree is now about 85 ft high and 71⁄4 ft in girth (measurement by P. H. B. Gardner, 1967). There is a specimen at Albury Park, Surrey, 68 × 6 ft (1966).
C. ovata is best distinguished from other hickories by the combination of shaggy bark and leaves with five leaflets, glabrous beneath when mature.
C. × laneyi Sarg. – A natural hybrid between C. ovata and cordiformis found wild in western New York.