Pecans: Texas treasure not just for pies anymore

About two million years ago, the pecan tree went extinct in Europe. Meanwhile, in North America it held on to become a prized food by Native Americans, and a puzzle to Europeans who had never seen it, and didn't know what to call it.

They borrowed the word "pacane," probably from the Algonquian, which finally became "pecan."

The pecan is a species of hickory, and belongs in the walnut family. It grows wild from Texas to Illinois and the Deep South states. It can also be found growing in parts of Mexico.

Pecans grow naturally in river bottoms, creeks, and streams. They like deep, well-drained soil. They can live and produce nuts up to 300 years. All kinds of animals eat the nuts, including squirrels, deer, raccoons, foxes, wild turkeys, wood ducks, and many other birds. Even the astronauts aboard Apollo 13 ate them from vacuum sealed packages.

They are tall trees, ranging from 65 to 130 feet high, with a canopy that can be 40 to 75 feet around.

The biggest Pecan in Texas resides in Parker County. It is 91 feet tall and its trunk has a diameter of 258 inches.

The pecan has a long history with Native Americans. They used them in all facets of cooking, and roasted them for hunting trips. They are a low water, high protein food packed with 19 vitamins and minerals. It even has a few medicinal applications. The Comanche applied ground up pecan leaves to the skin to treat ringworm. The Kiowa made pecan bark tea for tuberculosis.

In the early 1900s we almost lost the pecan in Texas, as it came close to becoming a victim of King Cotton. Settlers cleared massive numbers of native pecan groves to the point that by the early 1900s lawmakers considered making it illegal to cut down the trees. The pecan was finally named the State Tree of Texas in 1919 to honor Governor James Hogg, who had requested the pecan be planted on his grave in place of a gravestone.

You know spring has sprung when the pecans finally put out their leaves. Like the mesquite, pecans know when Texas is finally done with winter, and its time to bud and flower. Pecan trees have both male and female flowers. The male flowers bloom first, and are tassel-like. The females bloom later, producing flowers on the tips of the new growth.

The male blooms on pecans will either shed their pollen early or late, missing the female blooms on the same tree. So it's good to plant one early- and one late-pollen shedding type, about 300 feet apart, in your landscape to make sure pollination occurs. Recommended varieties include Desirable for early pollen shedding, and Sioux or Choctaw for late pollen shedding.

Pecans use the wind for pollination, and need just a few hours of clear weather and a nice breeze to pollinate an entire grove. Pecan trees can pollinate with each other up to a quarter mile away.

Texas commercial pecan production sits behind Georgia in number of pecans grown. The state has from 600,000 to one million acres of native pecans growing wild. Many are commercially cultivated, although they aren't as productive as improved species since they produce every other year, and their nuts are smaller. Including improved varieties, Texas has over 1,000 pecan orchards that produce 60 million pounds of pecans yearly. Major export markets are Canada, Mexico, and China.

The El Camino Real Master Naturalists are looking for the biggest pecan in Milam County. If you think you have it, nominate it! Who knows, maybe it will top the Parker County pecan tree!

El Camino Real Master Naturalists:

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