Pecan (Carya illinoinensis) is one of the few native North American plant species ever developed into a significant agricultural crop and is one of the few indigenous U.S. food crops commercially cultivated outside the United States. Georgia leads the nation and world in production averaging around 75 million pounds a year.
Pecan is native to the floodplains along the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and Red Rivers, their tributaries, and many of the largest rivers of eastern Texas and Mexico. A member of the hickory genus, mature pecan trees can grow to heights of 150 feet. The wide natural range led many Indian tribes inhabiting these areas to use wild pecans for food and trade; however, there is no evidence that they cultivated the tree. The first known cultivated plantings appear to have been by Spanish colonists and Franciscans in northern Mexico during the late 1600s or early 1700s, predating by about 70 years the earliest recorded planting in the U.S. (Long Island, New York in 1772). Soon thereafter, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both planted pecans at Mount Vernon and Monticello, respectively.
By the late 1700s the economic potential of pecans became apparent especially to the French and Spanish colonists settling along the Gulf of Mexico. Pecans gathered from wild trees had become an article of commerce in the Mississippi Valley by the early 1800s and were being exported to the West Indies and probably Spain. New Orleans provided a natural market and avenue for the redistribution of pecans to other parts of the U.S. and world.
This market generated considerable interest in the planting of pecan orchards. This interest, in turn, stimulated the development of clonal (genetically identical) propagation techniques and led to a demand for grafted trees and cultivars producing superior nuts. By the end of the 19th century, at least 15 commercial cultivars had been developed in and around Louisiana. Orchards consisting of clonal trees solved many problems inherent in the variability of trees in natural groves.
As early as 1822, Abner Landrum of South Carolina developed a highly successful budding technique. The discovery provided the first opportunity for clonal plantings derived from superior wild selections. Unfortunately, the technique was either lost or neglected and not used again until the 1880s. In 1846, a slave gardener at Oak Alley Plantation, LA, successfully propagated pecans by grafting a superior wild pecan on seedling rootstocks. This clone (cultivar) was eventually named ‘Centennial’ because it won the “best pecan exhibited” at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.
Another factor contributing to interest in commercial pecan production was the decimation of citrus orchards along the Gulf of Mexico caused by several devastating freezes in the 1880s. Many of the orchards were replanted with pecans. By the late 1880s, interest in pecans had spread to four other regions–southern Mississippi, northern Florida, southern Georgia and central Texas.
The demand for trees soon outstripped supply. This resulted in the planting of many seedling orchards despite the knowledge that clonal orchards had distinct advantages. The inadequate supply of improved trees began to be alleviated in the 1890s, a time that saw the introduction of numerous new cultivars including some still found in contemporary orchards. By the early 1900s, plant breeders began making controlled crosses which ultimately led to the introduction of additional superior cultivars.
From the 1890s to the 1930s, many seedling orchards were top-worked (a grafting technique used to change the cultivar and create clonal orchards on existing trees.) During the same time, an extensive proliferation of orchards took place in southwestern Georgia and east-central Texas. This proliferation appears to have occurred as a result of low land prices due to problems with cotton production, exaggerated reports of income from pecan orchards, and, in the case of Georgia, “an abundance of northern retirees believing sales propaganda advocating a comfortable retirement from the revenue produced from a few acres of pecans.”
The result was speculative fervor and a flurry of get-rich-quick schemes in which orchards were planted and quickly sold with a promise of wealth to the new owner. Thousands of acres were planted with the purpose of making money through selling orchards rather than through selling the crop. Due to unfounded claims of profitability and inadequate knowledge of horticultural, pathological and entomological information, the fervor soon cooled and interest in the crop declined. Many of these hastily established orchards proved unprofitable and were initially abandoned largely due to pecan rosette caused by a zinc deficiency. Regardless, major production potential had shifted from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi to Georgia. Georgia currently accounts for more than a third of total U.S. pecan production.
Recovery of the industry came some years later with the discovery that pecan rosette could be corrected with zinc-containing fertilizers and with the development of modern pesticides and spray equipment needed for insect and disease control. Modern cultural practices have reduced the biennial-bearing habit of pecans (tendency to produce a heavy crop one year followed by a light crop the next year). Many orchards are now irrigated. Specialized equipment and machinery have been developed so that production is now largely mechanized.
Mother nature can still play havoc with production, and annual production can vary widely. Georgia’s biggest crop occurred in 1993 when 124 million pounds were produced. Three-fourths of U.S. crop production is now from five states – Georgia, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Louisiana. Although orchards exist in numerous Georgia counties, the bulk of production is centered around Albany. Dougherty County alone has about 250,000 trees.
Georgia may be the Peach State, but pecans now far exceed peaches in annual production income. And while Georgia vies for second place with South Carolina in peach production (California leads the nation), Georgia is way out in front of its closest competition in p on in pecan production!
Special thanks to Dr. Jeff Lewis, Director of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens for providing this feature article about pecans. Dr. Lewis is a former Hills & Dales Estate advisory group member. The article appeared in his book Historic, Heritage & Heirloom Plants of Georgia and the American South. Signed copies of the book are available in the gift shop.
Pecans play a major role in southern cuisine. The recipe below is from Alice Callaway’s recipe book. Alice described this recipe as excellent! Give it a try.
Kentucky Pecan Pie
– 1 cup white corn syrup
– 1 cup dark brown sugar
– 1/3 teaspoon salt
– 1/3 cup melted butter or margarine
– 1 teaspoon vanilla
– 3 whole eggs (slightly beaten)
– 1 heaping cup shelled whole pecans
Combine syrup, sugar, salt, butter, vanilla and mix well. Add slightly beaten eggs. Pour into a 9 inch UNBAKED pie shell. Sprinkle pecans over all. Bake in a pre-heated 350˚ oven for approximately 45 minutes. When cool, you may top with whipped cream or ice cream.