History of the Pecan Tree


The pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis), a species of hickory, is native to central and southern parts of the United States and Mexico south to Veracruz. Spanish colonists and Franciscan priests cultivated pecan trees in northern Mexico in the late 17th century with documented plantings in 1711. Pecans were planted on Long Island in 1772 and on the estates of George Washington in 1775 and Thomas Jefferson in 1779.

Name Changes

The pecan tree was originally called Hicoria pecan, derived from a Native American word "powcohicora," an intoxicating drink made from pecans, and paccan an Algonquin word meaning any hard nut requiring a stone to crack it. After fur traders brought the nut back from Illinois in the late 17th century, the name was changed to Carva illinoinensis.

Native Range

North America native pecan trees grow along the banks of streams in central and East Texas and in Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers into Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky.

Archaeological Evidence

Pecan remains were found in 5,000-year-old deposits in a cave near Del Rio, Texas. Pecans fragments were also found in 650 year old archaeological deposits in central Texas. An Indian campsite in Edwards County, Texas, contained 350-year-old nut fragments.

Mention by Explorers

In 1528, Cabez de Vaca, a member of a Spanish expedition that traveled from Mexico along the gulf coast, observed pecan trees and ground pecan nuts being eaten by Native Americans. In February 1684, members of a Spanish expedition led by Juan Dominguez de Mendoza and Fray Nicholas Lopez ate pecan nuts collected at the confluence of the Middle Concho River and the Colorado River. Isidro Felix de Espinosa gave a detailed account of Native Americans eating pecans along the San Marcos River in Texas in 1709.

Commercial Growth

The French began exporting pecans from North America to the West Indies in 1802. In London, the merits of pecans as a cultivated crop were mentioned in 1805. In the early 19th century, pecans were exported to Europe from New Orleans and they began surpassing cotton as an agricultural crop in parts of Texas. In 1822, Abner Landrum of South Carolina learned how to graft wild plants onto domestic stock, a technique that was ignored or overlooked until 1876 when Antoine, an African-American slave in Louisiana began grafting wild pecan scions to seedling pecan stocks. In the late 19th century, growers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas and Mexico began domesticating pecan trees. The expansion of railroads made it possible to ship pecans to urban markets.

20th Century Forward

In the early 20th century, the Bordeaux mixture, a mixture of sulfur and hydrated lime, was used to prevent infections by fungal mildew and scabs. Between 1930 and 1940 machinery appeared on the market to shell pecans. From 1940 to 1950, growers began mixing nicotine sulfate with fungicides and DDT was used to kill the boring larvae of the casebearer moth. From 1950 to 1960, cheap speed sprayers appeared on the market to provide better coverage with pesticides. Malathion was used to control casebearer larvae. New fungicides replaced Bordeaux from 1960 to 1970; in the next decade Carbaryl and other chemicals were used to control pathogens and insects.There has been an increase in the production of pecans in California, Arizona, New Mexico and west and a decline in the traditional growing areas of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Domestic trees are now producing far more pecans than native trees. Pecans are also grown commercially in Australia, Mexico, Israel, South Africa and South America.

Keywords: pecan history, about pecans, pecan facts

About this Author

Richard Hoyt, the author of 26 mysteries, thrillers and other novels, is a former reporter for Honolulu dailies and writer for "Newsweek" magazine. He taught nonfiction writing and journalism at the university level for 10 years. He holds a Ph.D. in American studies.