The Shagbark Hickory is one of the few pioneer species known to colonize prairie grasslands in the early stages of forestation. An interesting tree that at maturity can reach over 100 feet tall, have a diameter greater than 25 inches across and live for over 300 years, Shagbark Hickory is almost immediately identifiable by its namesake bark that appears to be peeling like the outer skin of a banana.
Shagbark Hickory, in tandem with Oak trees, is part of what defines the northeastern region of Illinois as savanna. A savanna is what is known in ecology as an ecotone, a bridge between two greater ecosystems. In this case, that would be the bridge between a prairie grassland and a forest. A savanna is considered to be grassland that has tree cover, but still gets enough sunlight that penetrates to ground level. While Oak trees are the primary tree in savannas, regionally identified as Midwest Oak Savannas, Hickory Trees play a vital role.
Some traits of the Shagbark include being resistant to wildfire, tolerance of harsh exposure, and the ability to reach great heights above many of the under-canopy trees, such as redbuds, to which they provide the necessary cover during young growth. Shagbarks also provide nesting areas for the state and federally endangered Northern Long-Eared Bats, which are small enough to rest under the peeling sheets of bark during daylight hours. Other notable uses for the Shagbark Hickory include the nuts as a food source and the wood that is highly sought after by carpenters and builders for its hard density and tall, straight growth habit needed for large framing beams. This also lent to the nickname of ‘Old Hickory’ being given to former President Andrew Jackson, as he was known to be a tough, determined man, “as firmly rooted as a hickory tree".