In many American households, Thanksgiving just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without pecans. Whether in the shell, or roasted, or lacing the syrupy matrix of that Southern staple, pecan pie, this most American of nuts is a near-must for the holiday table.
The story of pecan’s journey to the Thanksgiving table begins, fittingly, in the forests of North America. Native from the central Midwest to northeastern Mexico, Carya illinoinensis (as pecan is botanically known) is a towering presence in rich lowland forests throughout its range, growing to a lordly 180 feet tall (and supported by a massive trunk that can reach 7 feet in diameter). American Indians prized and often planted the nuts, thereby increasing the species’ abundance and distribution. European settlers followed suit, cultivating Carya illinoinensis not only for food but also for furniture, tools, and firewood.
Pecan-growing went commercial in the nineteenth century after farmers learned to propagate superior varieties from cuttings (rather than growing random plants from seed, as formerly). Today, United States nut-growers from the Southeast to southern California harvest and sell hundreds of millions of pounds of pecans annually, supplying some 80 percent of the world’s crop (with Georgia, Texas, and New Mexico leading the way).
Not all of this pecan poundage is the same, however. Scores of pecan varieties have entered cultivation since the mid-nineteenth century, each differing in various important characteristics such as nut quality, hardiness, climatological preferences, disease and pest resistance, and precocity (i.e., bearing age). Moreover, recommended cultivars for commercial and home use vary markedly from one region to another (most agricultural extension services provide lists of the best cultivars for their respective states).
Southeast gardeners who would like to experience the thrill of growing their own pecans might want to try:
‘Elliott’, noted for its exceptionally flavorful, relatively small pecans, borne on disease-resistant plants.
‘Gloria Grande’, which bears annual (rather than alternate-year) crops of large, thick-shelled nuts.
‘McMillan’, a disease-resistant, precocious, prolific bearer of medium-sized nuts.
Varieties for Southwest and southern California gardens include:
‘Apache’, whose large, thin-shelled nuts are reliably produced each year.
‘Western’ (‘Western Schley’), widely grown for its sweet-fleshed, prolific pecans.
‘Wichita’, an alternate-year bearer of tasty, medium-sized nuts.
Whatever the region or cultivar, pecans require ample space, hot summers, and USDA Zone 5b or warmer winters, and grow best in fertile, well-drained, humus-rich soil (sandy or heavy soils can be amended with a rich compost such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend). Pecan flowers ripen most of their pollen before or after they’re ready to receive it; consequently, for maximum production plant at least two cultivars with different pollen seasons. Most cultivars begin bearing within several years of planting, their green-husked fruits splitting to disgorge the brown-shelled, sweet-fleshed prizes within.
Pecan aficionados who can’t grow their own – but would like a sampling of named varieties (rather than the anonymous, uniform offerings of their local grocery store) – can shop at mail-order retailers such as Bass Pecan Company and Georgia Pecan Farms. In pecan-growing regions, a few commercial orchards still operate retail stands, where shoppers can browse through piles of freshly harvested pecans in search of the perfect variety for their holiday pies. For cooks who take their Thanksgiving pecans seriously, nothing could be closer to culinary bliss.