Before recorded history, pecan trees grew wild along the river banks of what is now southern Illinois. Flood waters moved their seeds across western Missouri into southeastern Kansas, Oklahoma, central Texas and Mexico. Accounts by early Spanish and French explorers show that Native American tribes living in these areas moved around to follow the pecan harvest. The Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca was held captive by one of these tribes from 1529 until he escaped in 1535. In his journals he wrote that the people lived on nothing but pecans for two months of every year. During the rest of the year they pounded pecan kernels, added them to boiling water and used the mixture as seasoning for other foods.
The pecan is a form of hickory. The word “pecan” comes from the Algonquin word “paccan,” which means “a tough nut to crack.” Some of the pecans harvested today are small native pecans whose shells are very tough to crack. Most are new varieties called “papershell” varieties.
The life of pecan trees can be 100 years or more. A pecan tree will start producing nuts in its first six to eight years. There are two parts to the pecan nut. The nut has a soft outer husk. A hard, brown shell forms within this husk. The pecan meat is within the shell. It is soft and clings to the inside of the shell until the fall of the year, when it starts to congeal and
separate from the shell. Ripened pecans are easier to separate from the shell than those that are not. When the nuts are mature, the husks split open into four pieces, and the nut falls out.
The price pecan growers receive for their product depends on the percentage of edible meats in a sample. The grower weighs out one pound of pecans and carefully cracks them by hand or in a mechanical cracker. He or she picks out the edible meats, weighs them and calculates what percentage they are of the total weight of pecans. In the best pecans the
edible meats make up 50 percent or more of the total weight. Some of the newer developed varieties of pecans have edible meats weighting up to 60 percent of the total weight. Those meats deemed inedible are those that are poorly developed, rotten, or moldy or those that have dark spots. The dark spots indicate insect damage.
After the grower has picked out the edible meats, he or she separates them into three piles according to their color and development. The best pecans (No. 1’s) are bright colored, full bodied and solid. The next best (No. 2’s) are bright colored but light-weight. The least best, or No. 3 meats, are brown-colored and either full-bodied or lightweight.
The use of pecans has reached outer space. NASA packs pecans for astronauts to eat because they are dry, compact, contain important nutrients and are easy to digest. Pecans are low in sodium and have no cholesterol. They are also high in energy and contain protein, vitamin A, phosphorous, potassium and magnesium. The oil in pecans is mostly unsaturated (95 percent). Unsaturated fat is the good source of fat people need because it helps lower blood cholesterol.
Most of the pecans grown in the United States are grown in Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, South Carolina, Alabama and Florida. Outside of the United States pecans are grown only in a few countries where the climate and soil conditions are proper. These countries include Australia, Canada, India, Israel and Mexico.