Pecans are native to central and southern North America
This North American native nut tree has been a part of the foodways of native peoples from northern Mexico to the south and central US for thousands of years. The nutritious (and tasty) nuts were gathered and incorporated into many foods by the first peoples. However it has only been since the 18th Century that a concentrated agricultural business was born. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington planted pecan groves on their estates. It is the only native tree nut grown commercially that is native to North America. It is a member of the Carya genus of trees that also includes the hickory and both are members of the Juglandaceae family of nut-bearing trees, as is the black walnut. However these nuts have tough shells and the meat is hard to extract, so they haven’t gained the commercial success that the thinner-shelled pecan has. Although, here in west Kentucky, we gather both hickory and black walnuts every autumn from the wild forest trees. Between the US and Mexico, they produce more than 90% of the world’s pecans.
Growing pecan trees
The pecan tree is mainly a southern tree, however varieties have been developed that can survive and produce nuts as far north as USDA Zone 5. It is mainly a tree of the wooded lowlands and river banks and the wild trees were concentrated along the Mississippi River and its southern tributaries and the Red River basin in Texas. The pecan crop usually ripens in mid to late October and that is why it is hard to produce a crop in the colder, northern parts of the continent. The trees usually start producing between 6 and 10 years of age and they can grow to be an impressive size, often reaching over 70 feet tall at maturity which is at about 30 years of age. Pecan farmers in commercial groves space their trees at about 60 feet apart, so this isn’t a tree for a small, suburban lot. It also takes 2 different varieties for proper pollination to bear nuts, which is similar to apple trees, so pecans need plenty of room. They also tend to drop a large number of leaves, twigs and of course pecans in their husks every fall, so they aren’t known for being neat and tidy, however they do have a stunning bright gold autumn foliage.
Pecans can be part of a healthy diet
Pecans can be a part of a healthy diet, however that doesn’t mean pecans rolled in sugary concoctions, pecan-laced fudge or pecan pie. Pecans fresh from the shell are a good source of protein, contain few carbohydrates, no sodium and have no cholesterol. One ounce of raw pecans also contains 10% of your daily fiber needs. They contain Vitamin A, E, and several B vitamins along with potassium, zinc, magnesium and folic acid. The American Heart Association has included pecans (and other tree nuts) as part of a heart-healthy diet. However, there are people who are allergic to tree nuts and they should be introduced carefully to children.
Add pecans to savory recipes as well as sweet ones
Since the pecan harvest has just concluded, this is the perfect season to grab a bag and experiment. Pecan pies, fudge and brownies are all popular at family gatherings, however pecans can satisfy much more that a sweet tooth. Add crushed pecans to the toppings for baked fish or chicken. Toss them in salads and sprinkle them on top of a cream cheese block with jalapeno jelly. I also like to toss them with melted butter, Worcestershire sauce and seasoned salt with any baked party mix I stir up over the holidays. There are also commercially produced pecan butters and other products that are quite tasty.
Pecan hulls for natural dye
Pecan hulls also make an excellent natural dye. Most people take the green outer husks, or the whole nut, crush them, add water and let the whole concoction ferment for a week or so. Strain the resulting goop off (this will be messy) until you have a liquid free of particulates. You can dye, cotton, wool, silk or linen with this natural dye without having to cook it. The tannins in the pecan hulls are their own mordant and you simply soak your cloth or yarn in it for a day or two to achieve the desired shade. Adding an additional iron mordant enhances and alters the color some too. Pecans make a lovely brown natural dye with pinkish undertones.
Using pecans helps local farmers
However you celebrate the season, try to add some pecans this year if you've never done so. They are grown here in the US and it is not only eliminating food miles from imported edibles, it also helps our American farmers. You may create a new family tradition with what you create.