These days it seems everyone is talking about – and eating – nuts. The peanut – not a nut at all, but a type of bean – is of course central to American culture, but today it is the true nuts that everyone is eating. Taking care of our hearts is a big concern, and many nuts contain monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, both substances that improve cholesterol levels, so many doctors are suggesting eating nuts every Some are better than others, and pecans are at the top of the list. They also contain substances that reduce inflammation, something that seems to be at the root of many diseases, as well as boosting our immunity and perhaps even reducing the risk of some cancers. On top of all this, of course, they simply taste great, and the pecan is one of the most versatile nuts, working well in both savory and sweet dishes.
The biggest thing that probably reduces many people’s nut eating is price – and pecans are often at the top of the list for that too. So if you knew that you could have your own supply of pecans, for the trouble of picking them up off the ground, and add a beautiful shade tree to your garden at the same time, wouldn’t that seem like a great idea? Well you can – simply plant a pecan tree in your yard and sit back.
The pecan has the distinction of being America’s only native nut tree, and a big favorite of Native Americans long before the first Europeans arrived. The word ‘pecan’ is from the Algonquin language, meaning a nut that needs a stone to crack it. The tree, known to botanists as Carya illinoinensis, and a relative of both hickory and walnut, grew wild all the way from Illinois to Mexico, all along the rivers that cross the country, such as the Mississippi, because pecans like deep, moist soil. This also made them easy to harvest, and for Native Americans they were a big part of the fall food supply. When the first settlers arrived, they too found these new nuts a tempting food, and the first trees were planted in the 1770s. Both Washington and Jefferson had pecans in their gardens, but it was in the south that pecans became a big part of the economy. Harvested from wild trees, or from planted orchards, New Orleans became the center of the pecan trade, which in some parts even rivaled cotton for economic value.
The Pecan Tree
The pecan is a stately shade tree, and fast-growing too. A ten-year-old tree from seed is already 15 feet tall, and in time – a long time! – trees can pass 100 feet in height, be 50 feet or more across, and with a trunk 6 feet thick. So when you plant one, make sure there is room for it to mature, as all that growth and time will be wasted if it has to be removed because the space is too small. The tree has deeply-furrowed rugged bark, and the large leaves – up to 18 inches long, don’t look so large because they are divided up into about 15 leaflets, each up to 5 inches long.
At this point you are probably thinking you will need to be a monkey to harvest your nuts, but no, nothing could be easier, because the tree delivers them to you. When ripe the nuts fall to the ground, and all you have to do is pick them up. That is even easier than harvesting an apple. The most widely grown type of pecan is the southern native form, which has a thinner shell. You will know your new tree is going to have its first harvest when you see, hanging from the branches in spring, clusters of long, green structures called catkins. The wind will pollinate them, and later you will see the first small, green nuts developing. It will soon be time to start making that pastry for pecan pie!
Because the native tree grows over such a wide range, there are local varieties for both the north and the south. Choose one that fits your area for best results. In particular, in northern areas it is important to plant a tree that will ripen in a shorter time, so that you can grow a good crop.
Growing Pecan Trees
There is not much to say on this topic, since the main thing is to simply plant one or two and wait a while. Pecans grow best in areas with 200 days or more between the last spring frost, and the first one in fall, to allow time for ripening. They also prefer deep, moist soil, although they will grow in most good garden soils. The thrive in the long hot and humid summers of the south, and don’t grow so well in dry areas, especially on thin, sandy soils. Plant in sun, and choose a high spot, not a low-lying one, where a late frost can damage the catkins. The tree grows quickly, and you will soon be looking at your first harvest. Trees in poorer conditions may only produce a crop every second year, but still, it will be a bumper harvest, so worth waiting for.
Harvesting and Storing Pecans
For short-term use, you can simply shell your nuts and store the kernels in a plastic bag in the fridge, but for long-term storage the nuts should be left in the shell. When they fall to the ground there is still too much moisture inside them for storage, so they should be spread out in the sun, or in a warm, dry room, for 3 to 4 weeks, to dry thoroughly. The nuts can then be stored for up to a year in burlap of cloth bags – not plastic. Alternatively, store them in a freezer, especially if you are not sure if they are completely dry.
Time to Plant a Pecan Tree
Even if your conditions are not ideal, and you don’t particularly need a big crop of nuts, the pecan tree is such a handsome shade tree that it deserves a place in any larger garden. Its beautiful divided leaves, which turn golden in fall, cast a dappled shade, and the graceful form of the tree looks beautiful against the sky. Even in winter the sturdy branches have appeal, and this bold native tree deserves to be planted more often, for nuts or just for beauty.