A Brief History of Pecans
The official nut of no less than four states, pecans are much admired around the globe. Their nuts provide a healthy snack, while the wood is used for furniture and flooring.
What Are Pecans?
The pecan tree, a type of hickory, that goes by the scientific name Carya illinoinensis, is a member of the Juglandaceae, the walnut family. Pecans trees look a lot like walnut and hickory trees similar in both stature and compound leaf morphology. Unlike walnuts, pecan nuts have a smooth indistinctly four-seamed oblong shell that is more pointed at one end than the other. Walnuts are more wrinkled in appearance and are clearly composed of two halves. If you look closely, the shape of the nut meat inside a pecan shell is in two halves, very much like that of a walnut.
The word pecan comes from the Illinois (Algonquin) Indian word for pecan, pakani, which was modified down to pecane by Creole speaking folks. It didn’t take much effort to drop the trailing e to end up with “pecan.” So how do you pronounce it, anyway? PEE-can, Peh-CAN, Pee-CON, or peh-CON — it doesn’t matter, they are all correct.
History of Pecans
Native Americans collected pecans for centuries, but Spanish explorers first came into contact with pecan trees during the 1600s in what is now Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico. From there they took them back to Europe and the pecan has spread around the world since then.
Pecans are much admired in southern states where they are commonly found in community parks, along river banks, and planted in orchards. The pecan is the official state nut of Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, and California. It seems that one nut is not enough for California which also has three other state nuts. Texas also proclaims the pecan to be the state “health nut” and pecan pie the state pie.
Being native to the southern U.S. and northern Mexico, one wonders how they got the specific epithet “illinoinensis,” which means more-or-less “from Illinois” or “found in Illinois.” If you look at a map of the natural range of the pecan, you will see is does stretch up into the southern reaches of Illinois and they were known as “Illinois nuts” for some reason by early growers like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Growing Pecan Trees
Speaking of growing, it takes a long time to grow a pecan tree and at least seven to 10 years before they produce much in the way of nuts. And as is true of so many tree species, you can’t count on the progeny to be like the parents so it is too risky planting pecan from seed (you might find out after a decade that the trees are poor producers or don’t taste as expected). Grafting is the main way pecan trees are propagated.
Uses for Pecans and Pecan Trees
Sure, you can eat pecans just as they are, even ones that have been laying on the ground after they fell off the tree last year. The thin shelled varieties are preferred for eating out of hand. Let’s not forget about pralines, which are pecans (originally hazelnuts or almonds) mixed up with a gooey coating made from sugar, butter, and cream or milk. Like many nuts, pecans are high in protein and fat, with just shy of 200 calories in about eight shelled nuts. Throw in the typical array of vitamins and minerals and pecans come out looking pretty good.
What else is a pecan good for besides making pecan pies or pecan ice cream? Pecan wood has a beautiful grain and is used by woodworkers for furniture and flooring. It is a medium hardness wood of moderate strength. Pecan is considered a good substitute for oak, mahogany, and walnut. It is much prized by grillers to make pecan wood smoked meats. Some say it is a great firewood, while others say not so much since it contains more water than other woods and tends to pop and throw off embers if not adequately dried. Whether used for food, furniture, or fire, the pecan tree is truly an American classic.
Written by Philip McIntosh | Science & Technology Writer, Teacher