(Carya illinoinensis – Family Juglandaceae)
The pecan is the most important native nut of North America growing on the rich forested bottomlands of the Mississippi valley as far north as Indiana and Illinois and west into Texas and Kansas. They can also be found north and east of this range as well as at higher elevations south into central Mexico. The pecan is considered the best of the hickory family, related also to the walnut. All have kernels that generally resemble the walnut but are usually much oilier and milder in flavour. The name comes from the Algonquin word “paccan” which referred not only to the pecans but also to hickories and walnuts.
The pecan tree is a spreading tree with some reaching heights of 140 feet. The ellipsoidal-shaped, smooth-shelled nut grows in clusters of four to twelve. Pecan trees have been widely planted in orchards with some encompassing thousands of acres. The nuts from these operations are obviously harvested by machines that shake the tree of their fruits, followed by sweepers that vacuum them up. The oldest known variety is the centenniel, originated by a slave gardener on a plantation in Louisiana, and has become the leading commercial variety today. The infamous pecan (praline) pie first appeared in Louisiana in 1762. Thomas Jefferson sent some of his pecan nuts to George Washington at Mount Vernon. These were planted by Washington in the summer of 1786 and may still be seen, the oldest trees at Mount Vernon, near the southeast corner of the mansion.
Pecans are now cultivated in many states, but mainly in Georgia and Texas. There are more than 500 named varieties, and, despite the international fame of the pecan pie, the nut itself is still little known outside North America, although it is now grown in Israel, South Africa, and Australia. Pecan shells have been used to pave walks and driveways, for fuel, as mulches in gardens, as soil conditioners, for stock and poultry litter, as feed fillers, for insecticides and fertilizers, for making tannin and charcoal, ground into flour, used as soft abrasives in hand soap, used in non-skid paints and metal polishes, and fillers in plastic wood, adhesives, and dynamite.
A cross between the pecan and one of the hickories is the hican, which is only one of the many such natural crosses to have been found. The more attractive hicans have the long shape of the pecan but in other ways show the parentage of the hickory. The shell is not as thin as the pecan, but the kernels are rated as being better. The largest hican is the McAllister, which can be two and one-half inches long and more than an inch thick. It is said to be the largest American nut; but, except for the McAllister, the hican has not proven a productive type of nut.