The Pecan Tree, Carya Illinoinensis, Is A Wholly American Plant

Information On The Pecan Tree Species

Family: Juglandaceae

Scientific Name: Carya Illinoinensis

The pecan is an all-American nut. It and its hard-to-crack cousins grew in profusion in the mid-South, from Georgia to Texas, and as far north as Nebraska and Iowa and as far south as Mexico. The name is derived from the Algonquin word Paccan. This name referred to all of the hard tree nuts of this region that had to be cracked with a rock. It was French settlers in Louisiana who gave the word its present form, “pecan”. The Algonquins and others gathered and stored these nuts for winter use. They cracked the shells, crushed the kernels, and used the leftover pulp to thicken broths and enrich other foods. They also used hicko­ries, walnuts, and other forest nuts. Early settlers saw how important these nuts were to the local people and they were quick to adapt them to their own needs.

The range of the pecan and these other nuts grew as farmers, hunters, and traders carried them to their newer settlements farther north. At least two of our presidents, Washington and Jefferson, did the same thing on their plantations in Virginia. It was then, and is today, the most impor­tant tree nut native to North America.

Eventually, so many were growing in Illinois that Botanists assumed it was a native there and named the pecan, Carya illinoinensis. This set off a scientific squabble when some tree people in Texas demanded that the name be changed to Carya texana.

The Texas Pecan Tree

The Texan love affair with the pecan goes back to the nineteenth century. Teddy Roosevelt, hunting along the Llano River in 1885, wrote about “the grand old pecan trees along its banks.” A few years later, James Stephen Hogg became the governor of that state. (He obviously had a sense of humor; he named his daughter Ima, no doubt accelerating her interest in finding a husband.) When he died in 1906, he chose as his rave marker, not some piece of carved rock, but a pecan tree and a walnut tree with instructions that the nuts “be given out to the plain people of Texas so that they may plant them and make Texas a land of trees.”

Louisiana could make a legitimate claim for the scientific name as well. It was on a plantation near New Orleans called Oak Alley that the first grafting experiments with pecans took place in 1846. Dr. A. E. Colomb, a friend of J. T. Roman, the plantation owner, had identified a pecan tree that had been particularly fruitful. He enlisted a slave gardener named Antoine to cut scions, or branches, from that tree and graft them onto rootstock of the ordinary pecan trees. That first season Antoine produced a small orchard of sixteen trees. By the time of Roman’s death in 1848 Antoine had grafted one hundred and ten trees. At the end of the Civil War, there were one hundred and twenty-six highly productive pecan trees on the property. The young trees pro­duced more and better nuts and set off botanical work with the species that continues to this day. (Learn more about Nut Trees here.)

The Pecan At The 1876 World’s Fair In Philadelphia

In 1876 at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia, Antoine’s pecan was given the name “Centennial”. By 1882 a tree nursery in Louisiana was selling the budded and grafted trees through a farmer’s catalog. Eventually a new owner of Oak Alley took out most of the pecan trees to plant sugar cane, but there are three trees still there that could be from Antoine’s original planting. Professor L. J. Grauke of the USDA is checking that possibility. He is certain that the Centennial pecans still being grown today in southern orchards are what Antoine created all those years ago. Today, Oak Alley is an important historical museum with part of the mansion used as a luxurious bed-and­ breakfast.

Artists Rendition Of A Pecan Tree And The Nut

The Pecan Gains Popularity Nationwide

While people valued and enjoyed the pecan for centuries, it was not until the twen­tieth century that it really hit its potential with huge investments in new varietals and new orchards, efficient processing equipment, and skillful marketing. Today, through the work of tree scientists, there are over four hundred varieties. Trees are vastly more productive. The nuts are bigger with thinner shells, which are easier to harvest, crack, and process. They taste better and last longer. They have more resistance to blight and rust. There are cultivars designed to work well in specific climate and soil conditions.

Georgia grows the most by far, but there are substantial plantings in Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Arizona as well. Now bulk pecans are grown in Australia, South Africa, Brazil, and Israel. Among the ruling cultivars are the Schley, Stu­ art, Success, and Wichita.

Carya Illinoinensis, Carya Illinoinensis Pollination

The Pecan Tree Or Carya Illinoinensis Mates And Grows

The sex life of this great tree is different from other tree nuts. It matures in from six to ten years, then starts the monoecious flowering. This means that each tree has both male and female components. Still, most Carya Illinoinensis pollination is from other nearby trees. (You give me your pollen and I’ll give you mine.) The trees need a warm climate, but some winter chill. They need careful orchard management to make sure that some oppor­tunistic pest does not come in and ruin the harvest.

Currently, the harvest is remarkably automated. Workers, using big machines, start shaking the ripe nuts from the branches. They are swept into rows and gathered up for an initial drying. They are cooled for storing (and sometimes frozen) until it is time for processing. Then they are shelled, cleaned, graded, and packaged. They turn up in a thousand different delicious treats. Pecan growers celebrate their nut’s new prominence as a curative, a nut whose high fat content could reduce the chance of heart disease.

Twentieth Century Pecan Production

In the 1999-2000 production season, the United States produced three hundred and ten million pounds of in-shell pecans. This makes up most of the world’s supply. The following year would probably show a smaller yield, owing to the pecan’s alternate bearing cycle-one year. So, even with alternating yields, America is by far the number one producer.

We don’t know how the tax people got into it, but the Internal Revenue Service figures the outfit of the pecan tree, Carya Illinoinensis. It will live and produce for about fifty years. No big problem for the farmer or the government, but pecans live a lot longer than that. There are pecan trees in Georgia that are a thousand years old, still producing an edible nuts.