Pecan trees, ‘Carya illinoinensis,’ grow in natural groves in bottom lands near rivers or lakes with nearby periodic overflowing water. Archeological remains and fossil evidence reveals that pecans were collected and stored by Indians, the original settlers and inhabitants of America, and the group now known as the “mound builders.” American Indians followed this same example and were actively gathering pecan nuts when the European colonists arrived. The pecan trees were found growing in their northern limits along the tributaries of the Mississippi River near Louisville, Kentucky; Terra Haute, Indiana; and Clinton, Iowa, which is located at the same latitude as Chicago, Illinois.
In 1792 William Bartram reported in his botanical book, Travels, that identified American plants and animal names and Indian encounters that was located just west of Augusta, Georgia he recorded a nut tree, ‘Juglans exalata’ that some botanists today argue was the American pecan tree, but others argue was hickory, ‘Carya ovata.’ This is one of those circular arguments that will never be resolved to satisfy everyone.
Thomas Jefferson planted pecan trees, ‘Carya illinoinensis,’ (Illinois nuts) in his nut orchard at his beautiful home, Monticello, in Virginia; and George Washington reported in his journal that Thomas Jefferson gave him “Illinois nuts;” pecans which grew at Mount Vernon, Virginia, George Washington’s home. The trees grew and remain majestic in height and spread proudly even today. He called agriculture “the noblest of occupations.”
Pecan trees are native to the United States and are found growing naturally nowhere else in the world. The range of native pecan trees are found growing along rivers in Texas and in surrounding lands of the lower Mississippi River up to Louisville, Kentucky; Terra Haute, Indiana; and Clinton, Iowa, which is at the same latitude as Chicago, Illinois. Native pecan trees are also found growing as far west as Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas. Nomadic tribes of Indians carried these nuts from their native habitat into other areas of the United States and planted the nuts there as seed. Some of these trees have grown and survived as ‘Goliath’ specimens, such as one seedling with a 7 foot diameter trunk that is located at the TyTy, Georgia, nursery farm.
The shape of pecan nuts is highly variable; some are oval shaped and some are long and skinny. The size of the nuts can be as small as a pencil eraser or as large as 1.5″ inches in diameter to over three inches long. The kernels can vary in size within the hull; some filling out poorly or some not filling out at all. Some pecans have a kernel density so compact that the shells can be broken while the nuts are still on the tree by the swelling pressure that is generated from within, especially after heavy rains at the end of the ripening season.
The flavor of the pecan is considered by most nut gourmets to have a plumpness and juicy sweetness that is superior to all other nuts, without exception. Many commercial pecan shelling operations prefer to use mechanical automatic crackers after briefly soaking the nuts in the shell overnight. That treatment results in producing the highest numbers of ‘perfect halves,’ demanding from the public the highest prices. Some shellers prefer to shell small seedling (native pecans), because a candy maker or baker can place one nut on top of his confection at a lower price, since smaller halves of nuts cover more individual pieces of candy than would larger nuts. The pecan kernel is unique, because it contains an extremely high concentration of polyunsaturated fatty acid, and oils which are high in antioxidants. This oil is so concentrated that if a match is lit nearby, the kernel will flame up and is consumed by its own oils held within.
Commercial shellers prefer to offer for sale ‘perfect pecan halves’ to their grocery markets, since large pecan pieces demand the highest prices; however, smaller pieces of pecan nuts are also a valuable commodity for packaging into one pound plastic bags often appearing in grocery stores during the fall and for sales to bakeries. Many confectioners use these pieces in making unique pecan products such as pecan divinity candy, pecan logs, toasted and salted pecans, and pecan brittle. The leftover, tiny pieces of shelled pecans are often ground up into a meal that can be used in baking preparations to transfer that distinctive pecan flavor into goodies.
It is very important to a grower to market the harvested pecan nuts as early in the fall as possible, preferably before Thanksgiving. The market price of pecans plunges after November, because pecan shellers and processors must have the fresh nuts packaged and available for holiday buyers. Some orchards sell their in-shell nuts weighed and bagged to hometown grocery chains or at roadside fruit stands. The price for in-shell pecans is quite variable, depending on such factors as scarcity, quality, and unit size, but generally native pecans (seedlings) sell for lower prices than improved cultivars. Recent seasonal prices for in-shell nuts ranged from $1.00 to $2.25 per pound wholesale. The thinness of the shells of pecans is an important characteristic in determining the value of pecans. The term ‘papershell pecan’ refers to the thinness that allows two nuts placed in the fist to be easily cracked, usually producing ‘perfect halves.’ This thinness of the shell occurs occasionally in the extreme
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