Photo courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden
A Civilized Nut
The nuts of pecan trees show the signs of long association with humans. They are large, meaty, and easily cracked--not nature’s typical design for survival of the species (unless the species is a squirrel). Pecans bear male and female flowers on the same tree, and a single tree will make a crop of nuts, but pollination between two trees yields larger crops. So, you can plant just one tree, but even then you’ll need space. A mature pecan can be seventy feet tall (and make a handsome shade tree, like many of its kin in the hickory family).
The hardiness of a pecan tree is a vexed question. I have seen a tree growing just south of the boundary between USDA Zone 4 and Zone 5 bearing a heavy crop of nuts. One theory, which I favor, has native Americans carrying nuts with them northward up the Mississippi and the Missouri to start trees for the next generation of roaming hunters. The hardiest trees survived and delivered nuts to make more hardy trees. Today’s enthusiasts continue to look for superior trees, and there is a program at the USDA to breed superior trees.
The female flower is a small capsule (looking like a baby nut) from which protrude bright red pistils, ready to catch pollen. The male flowers are small and green and crowded together in catkins almost one foot long that festoon the branches in spring.
The pecan is a commercial crop in the U.S., with vast groves in Texas where it is the state tree. There are many varieties, with nuts of different sizes, flavors and ease of cracking and shelling.
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