The pecan is the only truly commercial nut among the hickories. Even though
there are other hickories that bear edible nuts, they grow slowly and their
nuts are so difficult to crack that it is not economical to grow them commercially.
Pecans can also be cross pollinated with other hickories, producing a hybrid
that is a beautiful, ornamental shade tree with potential for dwarfing rootstocks,
though its nuts are of poor quality.
The pecan resembles a walnut. It is, however, more elongated, with a smoother
shell and a higher proportion of kernel in its shell. The internal partitions
which separate the two halves of the kernel are thinner than those of the walnut.
Unlike the walnut, when the pecan is mature its husk splits open into four
How does the pecan tree grow?
The pecan is a large, stately deciduous tree. It may reach over one hundred
feet in height, with a trunk diameter of six feet and a limb spread of about
one hundred feet. Some pecan trees are known to be over 1,000 years old.
The pecan needs deep, well-drained soil, freedom from drought with adequate
rainfall or irrigation. Since its wood is brittle, the trees may easily be
damaged by strong winds or rough treatment during harvesting. Roots may penetrate
to a depth of 30 feet and may spread to twice the span of the crown.
Male and female flowers grow separately on each pecan tree. However, the pecan
usually requires pollination from another tree in order for fertilization to
take place. A pecan tree begins to bear nuts at the age of 6 to 10 years, and
continues to produce for many years, sometimes for as long as 200 years. It
can produce as much as one hundred-fifty pounds of in-shell nuts in a year,
although there are records of a pecan tree having produced eight-hundred pounds
of nuts. But that may have been under extraordinary favorable conditions; it
is definitely not the norm.
The pecan tree is not easy to propagate, requiring considerable skill in patch
budding and inlay bark grafting. Until recently, pecan trees were planted at
wide spacings of minimum 60x70 feet, up to 100x100 feet, which is the equivalent
of 4 trees per acre. But the trend has shifted towards higher density planting,
using newer cultivars. In fact, The Texas Agricultural Extension Service recommends
a spacing of 35x35 feet (which is the equivalent of 35 trees per acre), to
be thinned out to wider spacings after 15 to 20 years. This method results
in much higher returns per acre in the early years, before the orchards are
thinned out. The orchards do have to be constantly pruned and the trees trained
when this method is used, but it pays. In order to increase the yield it is
very important to fertilize the orchard with nitrogen.
Where did the name ?pecan? originate?
Although the pecan is named Carya illinoinensis, it is actually indigenous
to a much broader area, encompassing the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana,
Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana,
Nebraska, Iowa as well as Mexico. The pecan was a dietary staple for North
American Indians in the south central region of the U.S. long before the
arrival of Europeans. Later they traded pecans to the settlers for furs,
trinkets and tobacco. Before the 1500?s, no European had ever seen
a pecan nut.
In 1729, a carpenter on a French ship reported that the Indians who lived near
the Mississippi river had 3 different kinds of walnut trees, one of which produced
delicious nuts as small as a man?s thumb. They were called ?pacanes?.
The French in Louisiana adopted this name for the pecan. The Indian word ?paccan? included
also walnuts and hickories, some of which were extremely hard to crack. In
other related dialects the nut was known as ?pakan? and ?pagann?.
The Indians stored these highly nutritious nuts for use during the winter.
They pounded the kernels into small pieces, cast them into boiling water, strained
and stirred the mixture, and used this creamy liquid ?hickory milk? to
thicken broths and to season corn cakes and hominy. Occasionally it was fermented
to produce an intoxicating liquor that was consumed at tribal feasts.
In the past the pecan was known botanically as Hicoria pecan. Walnuts, hickory
nuts and pecans belong to the Juglandaceae family.
The development of the pecan in the United States
Around 1760, toward the end of the French and Indian Wars, fur traders introduced
the pecan from the territory of the Illinois Indians to the east coast. Hence
its name: the ?Illinois? nut. The first recorded shipment of
pecans abroad occurred in 1761, when John Bartram, a famous Philadelphia
botanist, sent a package of seeds to a friend in London. By 1772, pecan seedlings
were being raised and sold in a nursery.
George Washington liked pecans so much, that he often carried them in his pockets.
In 1774 he planted some pecan seedlings, and they lived for a long time. Thomas
Jefferson planted pecan trees at Monticello in 1779. Both men regarded the
pecan as a handsome ornamental tree for U.S. gardens.
In 1865, right after the Civil War, Union soldiers helped increase the pecan?s
popularity by bringing pecans home when they returned north from the war.
The pecan is the official state tree of Texas. As a matter of fact, of all
the states it was Texas that had the most wild pecan trees, possibly as many
as 75 million trees. Some loyal Texans claim that the tree should have been
named Carya texana.
In 1880 the first commercial pecan orchard was planted with seedling trees,
and in 1882 a commercial nursery in New Orleans offered budded and grafted
pecan trees for sale. They cost $2.50 per tree. In the late 1880?s work
was continued in the study of grafting pecan trees and of developing strong
cultivars. In March 1906, Governor Hogg of Texas declared on his deathbed, ?I
want no monument of stone or marble, but plant at my head a pecan tree and
at my feet an old-fashioned walnut ... and make Texas a land of trees.?
Investing in pecans
In the beginning of the twentieth century various ?get rich quick? claims
were put forth involving making easy money through pecan growing. Hundreds
of thousands of acres were planted, plots were ?sold? to gullible
investors, and although most of these operations were honest, many people suffered
disappointing losses when promises of instant wealth failed to materialize.
One problem was that it takes a long time, 10 or 12 years, for Stuart pecans
to begin producing. During the depression years of the 1930?s many investors
went broke. Thirty years later, thousands of acres of these Stuart pecans were
rehabilitated and brought back into production.
In 1847 an important historical event took place in the pecan industry: A slave
gardener by the name of Antoine, who worked on a Louisiana plantation, successfully
topworked 16 native pecan trees. This is a technique whereby pecan seedlings
are cut back and grafted with scions of a selected parent tree. Finally it
was possible to propagate the pecan asexually. Antoine?s selection
was named Centennial in 1876 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the
U.S. It has become a very popular variety. Since that time, more than five
hundred other pecan cultivars have been named.
During the early 1800?s much progress towards increasing production was
made by topworking native pecan seedlings with new varieties. One pioneer in
this type of propagation was H.A. Halbert of Texas, who traveled around his
state for 40 years as a specialist in topworking. He died in 1926 at the age
of 77 when he fell from a pecan tree that he was budding.
The pecan evolves as an important crop
It took about 400 years for the pecan to become an important crop in the U.S.,
reaching a commercial scale in 1920, and increasing steadily ever since.
On average, about two hundred million pounds of pecans are produced annually.
In common with the macadamia nut, pecan cultivation involves long term projects,
requiring considerable financial investment over a period of many years before
any profits can be expected.
Pecans are a multi-state crop, stretching across the U.S. from the Southeast
to the Southwest throughout some 20 states. On the other hand, other edible
tree nuts are mostly one-state crops: almonds, pistachios and walnuts in California,
filberts in Oregon, and macadamia nuts in Hawaii. The largest pecan orchard,
some six thousand acres, is located near Tucson, Arizona.
What problems may be encountered in the cultivation of pecans?
Weeds, diseases, insects and other pests all have to be kept at bay. More than
180 insect and mite species have been found on pecans. The newer methods
of cultivation bring with them increased risk of pest infestation, which
must be strictly controlled. Fungicides are used against pecan scab, powdery
mildew and pink mold. Zinc deficiency of pecan is treated with foliar sprays
and soil application.
What characteristics are desirable in pecans?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking into breeding work that aims
to produce disease and insect resistant strains of pecan, with vigorous growth
and more branching, adequate foliage, early nut maturity, easy opening shucks
and easy to shell kernels.
How do the various cultivars differ from each other?
In general, about half of the pecans of commerce are native, while the remainder
originates from standard varieties of cultivars developed during the past
50 years. Pecans of these improved varieties are generally larger than seedling
nuts and have thinner shells. Different varieties of pecan produce nuts which
vary in size from under ¼ inch to more than 1 inch in diameter, from ¼ to
2 inches in length, yielding roughly 40-200 nuts per pound. As for oil content ? this
may range from under 50% to more than 75%, with varying degrees of unsaturation.
In view of medical reports suggesting the benefits of unsaturated fats, pecans
are highly desirable nutritionally.
Where are pecans cultivated outside of the United States?
Pecans have been successfully planted in Mexico, Australia, Brazil, South Africa,
and Israel, as well as several other countries. Since the pecan is indigenous
to Mexico, that country has been planting pecans for over 100 years.
How are pecans harvested, stored and marketed?
Years ago pecan nuts were allowed to drop from the trees and were harvested
by hand from the ground. These practices have gradually been replaced by
mechanical systems, including tree shakers, nut sweepers, vacuum harvesters,
conveyors and trash separators. Nuts can now be mechanically shaken from
the tree in fifteen seconds, picked from the ground, cracked and shelled,
virtually untouched by a human hand.
Pecans harvested mechanically by tree shakers have a higher moisture content
than nuts which drop naturally to the ground. It is vital to dry the nuts by
blowing warm, dry air upon them for 9 to 17 hours, as their moisture content
must be reduced as soon as possible to 4½%. Once dried, nuts should
be refrigerated in a controlled climate in order to maintain high product quality
for up to one year. For longer periods of storage, freezing is recommended.
At present, most pecans which are to be shelled are stored under refrigeration
directly from the orchard, and shelled just prior to marketing. The unbroken
shell protects the nutmeats from contamination, discoloration, insect and mold
Mechanical equipment has been developed and improved to size, crack, shell,
grade, dry and package pecans. 85% of pecans are marketed shelled, while 15%
is sold in the shell. Shelling the nuts increases their susceptibility to damage
by insects, oxidation, mold and bacterial contamination.
Pecan shelling plants are located the Southeast and Southwest, as well as in
Chicago and other cities. Prior to shelling the nuts are sorted and sized.
Then they are conditioned by being soaked in tanks of warm water or they are
steamed. This process makes the kernels limp, so they are less likely to break
during cracking and shelling. Ideally the shell should shatter easily while
the kernels should be pliable. Additionally, the F.D.A. requires that sufficient
heat be applied during the conditioning process to kill any bacteria that may
lurk in the pecans. Force is applied to each nut in order to crack it, following
which the pecans are shelled and shaken to remove the middle partition. Then
the kernels are screened and separated into various sizes of halves and pieces,
dried and rapidly cooled. Defective kernels and foreign matter are removed
before the kernels are packaged into as many as 38 different sizes of halves
There is a large demand for pecans in bakery and confectionery products. 36%
of shelled pecans are sold to bakeries, 21% to confectioners, and the remainder
to grocery-wholesalers, retailers, dairies for ice cream production, and some
Pecans are graded according to size, and quality, as well as color. In-shell
pecans are bleached or washed in wet sand, and then waxed, polished and dyed
before being packed in window-type cartons for sale. During shelling great
care must be taken to prevent bruising of the kernels, which causes an oily
film to migrate from the nutmeats. This results in rancidity.
Pecan butter is a desirable flavor in milkshakes and other foods but is not
popular as a sandwich spread because of its strong, bitter taste. Pecan shells
are used as gravel for driveways and walks, fuel for steam boilers and mulch
for ornamental plants. Reduced to flour they are an ingredient in airplane
engine cleaner, rug cleaner, and a filler in insecticides, fertilizers, veneer
wood and polyesters. Pecan wood and veneer are in high demand for decorative
paneling, fine furniture and attractive flooring. The pecan is also very popular
as a beautiful, decorative addition to home landscaping, providing shade and
nuts to its proud owners.
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