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Boerne Chapter

Pecan—A NICE Old Favorite

By Delmar Cain

Once again another year has flown by and 2013 is here. A new year means that before you can say “Jack Robinson” green things will start to appear and the “tax man” will be calling.

Trees
Pecan tree in its native habitat near water.

But that may be moving things too fast. Let’s slow down a bit and consider that the Boerne Chapter of NPSOT has begun the new year with the recommendation of an old favorite, the pecan (Carya illinoinensis), as the NICE (Native Instead of Common Exotic) plant of the month for January.

I say it is an old favorite for a couple of reasons. My mother baked two sweets of which I was particularly fond—pecan pie and jam cake made with black walnuts. The jam cake, which she sent back to school with me after holiday visits, had a particularly short half- life, especially if I didn’t hide portions in my clothes drawer. The pecan pies never made it to the dorm. I have been a pecan lover all my life and still enjoy several pounds of pecans, in one form or another, each year.

The earliest European settlers probably did not find pecan trees in the Northeast. The species was originally native to the area along the Mississippi Valley from present Southern Illinois down to Louisiana and westward into the Hill Country and more sparsely eastward into parts of Kentucky, and Alabama. However, Native Americans, including those tribes in the Illinois Confederation in the upper Mississippi Valley, were fond of pecans and used them both as a food source and for trade. Eventually because of its value both for food and for wood, humans moved the species eastward.

New pecans
Leaves and maturing nuts on a Pecan tree.

George Washington planted pecan trees provided to him from Thomas Jefferson, who was one of the earliest pecan tree growers. It may have been at one of their homes that Friedrich Adam Julius von Wangenheim, a former officer in the Prussian Army and Captain in the Field-Jager Corps of the Landgrave of Hesse, or as is more commonly known to us here in this country, a mercenary Hessian in the British Service, observed and first scientifically named the pecan tree species. Captain von Wangenheim, when not on cavalry raids, spent his spare time learning about forest species that might be useful for his home country. He named the pecan species “Carya illinoinensis”, publishing his findings in a book that described his botanical observations during his military tour, which extended from 1777 to1783.

Another reason that the pecan tree is a favorite is because since 1919 it has been the state tree of Texas, which means that it has an official status right up there with mockingbirds, monarchs and Buckminsterfullerene molecules (or as you probably know them, “buckyballs”). The pecan tree was selected because it is commercially important as a food crop and also for its wood. In addition it is stately in its appearance, sometimes reaching a height of 100 feet or more, and is generally long-lived. The pecan trees Washington planted are still living.

Moth on small bloom
Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)

The natural habitat of pecans, like that of many members of the Walnut family, was in well-drained soils along ridges of rivers and stream banks. That is where the early German settlers of the Hill Country would have found them. And although they have been planted in many upland sites and can survive moderate droughts, they will do best when they are located in deep soil kept moist for their long taproots.

Nature is efficient but, unlike homeowners associations, it does not place a high value on neatness. You could give your compost bin a bountiful infusion, when the stems, husks, nuts and leaves drop from a mature pecan tree in the fall. Or if you choose nature’s way, you can leave the litter and let the tree compost itself. However, some have suggested that removing the litter may help to control some of the diseases or pests that can affect the health of the tree or its productivity.

Bug on blade of grass
Wheelbug, a predator welcomed on pecan trees.

Truth in advertising (which if it was ever valid, now seems to be a value more touted than adhered to) requires me to let you know that just because your pecan tree starts to produce pecans after 12-15 years you should not count on an annual cash crop of nuts. First of all even commercial growers have good and bad years depending on too much or too little rain, soil conditions and adequate amounts of lime, fertilizer and zinc. Secondly, humans are not the only creatures that enjoy pecan trees. Besides the squirrels, birds, raccoons, hogs and deer that feed on the nuts, there is a jungle of small things that also fancy pecan trees. It is a host plant for one of our more common butterflies, the gray hairstreak butterfly.

The history of the commercialization of the pecan as the most valuable nut tree is a history of trying to overcome or minimize the effects of pecan scab, black pecan aphid, hickory shuckworm, pecan weevil, tent caterpillars and pecan spittlebugs. And those are just a few of the diseases and insects that are lurking about, waiting for you to plant your pecan tree. If any tree provides an example of our battle with nature to increase the yield of a food crop, it is the pecan tree. It is a never-ending story of how to protect from the bad without killing the beneficial. But that is a story best told by others.

If you decide that you need a large shade tree and have the right soil and space for it, consider a pecan tree. If you decide on a hybrid (of which there are many) other than our native pecan, do research to make sure that it is appropriate for this area. There may be additional care that is required, if you are interested in a consistent nut crop. For planting instructions check the Boerne NPSOT website at: www.npsot.org/wp/boerne/

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