The Incident with the Mockernut

Looks menacing to me.

Note: It is entirely in the realm of possibilities that the events recounted may have been slightly exaggerated. Nevertheless, it is all true.

Towards the middle of August on nice pre-autumn afternoon I was in the backyard minding my own business when, with a loud bang, something hit the garage roof. A second later, at the far edge of my peripheral vision, something whizzed by and landed with a sharp crack on the driveway. (Here it should be noted that the last time my vision was tested at the DMV office the agent said my peripheral vision was extremely good.) Whatever it was, it missed. Minutes later it happened again with the “missile” missing my head by just a few inches. It crossed my mind that it would be advantageous to take cover in the garage. When the barrage ended I collected the spent shot from the garage walkway and the driveway.

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It was the Mockernut! Our hickory tree was throwing murder marbles at me! I was appalled. This is the tree that provides much-needed shade in the summer and gorgeous golden leaves in the autumn. This is the tree I always stop to give a pat to when walking by. It is solid, straight, true. And, apparently, a punk teenager.

The Mockernut hickory, Carya tomentosa, is a member of the Julandaceae, the walnut family. Our tree is around 55-60 feet high and at least 40-45 years old. These trees don’t start producing murder marbles until they are 25 years old. That seems such a long ”childhood” until you learn they are both slow-growing and long-lived, with some trees reaching the age of 500 years.

Assassins in waiting.

As woodworkers are well aware, hickory wood is extremely hard and is an excellent wood for tool handles. The nuts are also exceedingly hard. People who enjoy hiking or camping in the forest and who have unfortunately lost their food supply to bears can enjoy a snack of hickory nuts if they happen to have brought along a sledge hammer. Try as I might, none of the many nutcrackers in the house could open a fresh Mockernut nut. Hickory nuts are an important food source for squirrels, rabbits and other wildlife, but how in the world do they get them open? Being much smarter than the average human they gather the nuts and wait. After a few weeks of aging the nuts are much easier to open.

Perhaps our Mockernut was feeling feisty after several “off” years and the beating it took last year. On a warm day in April 2020 we had what seemed to be a mini-derecho tear through our neighborhood. In just 15 to 20 minutes shearing winds tore thousands of leaves and small branches from trees. The wind was accompanied by hailstones the size of nickels and quarters. When the wind and hail stopped every surface was covered with ragged green leaves and the air was filled with a fog as the hailstones melted. Weeks afterward the damage inflicted on the springtime trees, especially to the crowns, was hard to miss. In our yard the Mockernut and Southern red oaks faired much worse than the white oaks.

Beyond the deep shade it provides in the summer the Mockernut is an important part of our yard’s ecosystem. It is home to myriad insects that provide food for several bird species. For many birds it is an intermediate stop and refuge on the way to the water bowls. The squirrels have made it their highway connecting their nesting trees to the yard. The Mockernut is also an important feature in squirrel parkour exercises and several branches are used as napping sites during the summer.

I have to admit the initial attack brought back childhood memories of the apple trees in the “Wizard of Oz.” It was upsetting to see an apple tree, mind you a talking apple tree, slap Dorothy and then pelt her with apples. Although there were days when there were so many nuts on the ground walking felt more like in-line skating, I made my peace with the Mockernut. Or so I thought. Just a few days ago we had a light rain followed by a nice breeze. I was in the yard minding my own business when suddenly, WHAPP! I was struck on the side of my head by a golden compound Mockernut leaf.

Pretty until it tries to kill you.

Suzanne Ellison


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