Pecans are a true southern nut. Native to the southeast region of North American and some locations in Mexico, this hickory relative was valued by the Native American tribes for its taste and high protein, fat and caloric content, as well as its ability to store in the shell for up to a year. Colonial Americans considered them a delicacy and they were cultivated and exported to northern areas. These are all reasons we still prize them today, although we also know now they are good sources of monounsaturated fats, vitamins and minerals.
Like most trees we cultivate for food, the seedlings grown from nuts do not necessarily resemble their parents, so the quality and characteristics of nuts from one tree to another varies widely. In the case of pecans, so does the effort required to shell them. The modern widespread agriculture of pecans began when an African-American slave named Antoine successfully grafted 16 trees that produced nuts that were easier to crack onto seedling stock in 1846 or 1847 in Louisiana. While grafting was a known science, no one had yet succeeded with pecans, and succeed he did: eventually 126 trees were grafted, producing genetic clones of the single superior tree. A later owner of the plantation commercialized the variety, “Centennial” paper shell pecans, in 1876. Some of the trees that were sold are still living although none of Antoine’s original trees are. Nor do we know what happened to the highly skilled slave gardener, who kicked off the widespread cultivation of the most valuable nut in the United States today, other than that we know he was alive in 1848 when he was valued at $1000 and his pecan skills noted.
Pecans are large deciduous trees which live very long lifespans: typically 300 years but potentially as many as 1000. This means a pecan planted today is unlikely to yield any nuts at all for 10 years and won’t reach its peak nut production for many more after that. This doesn’t mean I don’t recommend planting them if you have the space and proper environment: I do. But you’ll probably be truly planting them for the next generation to enjoy. This decade, you’ll need to get your pecans elsewhere.
We’ve been spoiled by the full nut meats, sweet taste and thinner shells of modern cultivated varieties, so while wild pecans are perfectly edible, your best bet foraging is not out in the wild, but gleaning in your own neighborhood. (Assuming, of course, you live in the sultry South.) The original planters of the trees are often long gone, so if you see a good tree dropping nuts on the sidewalk or someone’s lawn, it might be fair game. But don’t steal — taking food off of someone’s property is in my opinion the worst form of stealing. Knock on the door and ask: responses will vary from delight someone wants to pick up the annoying, lawn-killing lawnmower projectile nuts to outright refusal. Someone who wants the nuts themselves might be willing to cut a deal where you pick up the nuts in exchange for keeping some.
Trees on public land are more complicated. Check your local regulations, and also check with the local gleaning groups to be sure those trees aren’t already being collected for charitable causes.
Despite the caveats, pecan trees are everywhere once you start to recognize them, and it only takes one good tree to produce as many pecans as a typical household can handle. Once you have “your” tree, you can go back to it each year… being sure to check with the owners again, of course.
For more on the history of the pecan, I recommend “The Pecan: A History of America’s Native Nut” by James Williams.