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Among America's Best Loved Trees - Pecan

One hundred years or so ago a national poll on the question of what would be our most famous nut bearing native tree would probably been won by the American Chestnut.  

Of course, the American Chestnut by now is just a vague memory in the minds of some senior citizens and a familiar lyric line in the minds of everyone else, if they should be hearing or singing, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”

In case you were living under a rock, much water has flowed over the dam of fallen trees since those years, and disease wiped out the American chestnut from the vast areas of the United States that it once dominated.

Today, we still have the Pecan, the largest of the Hickory tree clan, that would lead our nut-bearing trees in any such contest, and with some very good reasons.  More than anything, it owes its fame and longevity to the excellent food quality of its nuts, an important crop in those areas where they are still commercially produced.

Since they are a native tree, they were here long before European settlement of this country.  In fact, the word “pecan” is an Algonquian Indian name, that means the kind of nut that would require a rock to crack open.  

Pecans are very handsome trees, somewhat big because they range in height, averaging seventy to eighty feet tall.  Some individual pecan trees have been known to reach one hundred and seventy feet tall, and six feet around in girth around the trunk — but of course, those are rare exceptions.

Pecan trees are somewhat slender among trees.  They have a rough, pale buffish tan bark that is strongly seamed.  

They make a wonderful ornamental tree with the bonus of being useful, though only in terms of a food source because their wood is too brittle to be of any timber value.  I’m thinking that’s a good thing and perhaps why they weren’t logged out with other species to near extinction.  I’m sure the pecans would agree with me since ax and saw and man have proved to be quite greedy.

In the wild, the pecan tree grows from eastern Iowa south through Missouri, Indiana, and southern Illinois.  Then it leaps to the western parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, and on to Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and of course to Texas.  However, they are also found in California Louisiana, Florida, and New Mexico by extension of man’s interference in Mother Nature’s garden. 

Additionally, it should be noted that pecans are originally also native to parts of Mexico, particularly from Coahuila south to Jalisco and over to Veracruz.  There pecans are known as “nuez” which can mean both pecan and walnut when speaking to the natives living there.

In the spring, pecan trees have glorious bright yellow green leaflets that span from nine to seventeen in number, all strung along a stem.  these are the slim, pendent male catkins developing to supply pollen for the much smaller female flowers that are conveniently grouped at the twig tips.  It is only there where the ends of the year’s new growth appear — that the nuts are formed in clusters.  Eventually these clusters contain from three to eleven individual pecan nuts.

Most everyone in the past knew what a pecan nut looked like.  I’m not so sure that is true today simply because of the way we buy our food sources.  The tan-brown mature nut though contains a secret worthy of sharing to those who only buy their pecans already shelled.  Here’s the skinny on it:


  • The thickness of the pecan nut shell varies considerably between pecan trees — and so does how good the pecan nut’s flavor of the inside kernel.  
  • The thinner more paper-like shells produce the largest and sweetest pecans.


Considering the price of nuts and especially pecans, I’m a big advocate of planting pecan trees on any home property that has space for them if you are in a good climate for them.  They prefer moist, rich soil of bottom lands, but will grow and be healthy in the states named above.  Additionally, one of the things I’d like to point out to anyone considering adding pecan trees to their garden is that they make one of the finest large ornamental trees for shade.  They are also among the long living of trees.

As a postscript to the story of the pecan tree, here’s a little bit of old knowledge.  Pecans trees were once plagued by a bird species, the common sapsucker (of the woodpecker family).  Those little birds loved to drill holes into the trunk and larger branches of pecan trees to eat the soft inner bark.  Later on, they would keep returning to feast on the oozing sap and small insects that would be attracted to the holes, thus weakening the tree.

Damage From Common Sapsucker

In the past, when there were lots of sapsucker birds, this became a problem so growers would switch to apple and pear trees for commercial income.  That caused a different problem, because the sap of both those trees ferments upon exposure to the air and becomes alcoholic.  It appears that there are a lot of old time reports of drunken sapsuckers (woodpeckers).