SCIENTIFIC NAME: Carya illinoinensis
FAMILY: Juglandaceae

The indigenous area of the pecan tree as described by early European explorers shows that it grew in native stands in North America from the vicinity of the Great Lakes in the north to central Mexico, even as far south as the higher altitudes near Mexico City (1).

The distribution throughout this very large region may have been because the nuts floated down streams across flood plains. The nut was also carried by nomadic peoples and planted near streams and watering places, and even squirrels and birds may have played some part (2).

Later, Europeans and other races also played their part, and the growing places in the world extend throughout a large part of North and South America, a number of countries around the Mediterranean, several countries in Africa, also India, China, Australia and New Zealand. The climatic variations and soil types in these places are extremely varied, and just as varied are the valuable attributes of this tree. Let us now take a look at these, or as many of them as we can cram into this talk.

The pecan is highly prized for the flavour and many uses of the nut, and this has tended to overshadow the other benefits of this tree that will grow well in such a wide variety of climates and conditions. A member of the hickory family with a botanical name of Carya illinoensis, it is in the greater walnut family of Juglandaceae (3). This does not mean that it is compatible with walnuts for graft union or hybridisation. Almost exclusively confined to North America, with one, or perhaps two, species found in China; a contrast with walnuts, that are found over most of the Northern Hemisphere with a number of species in South America.

Of all the hickory family, the pecan appears to be the most vigorous and is also the species most popular for eating qualities of the nut (4). Some people will tell you that some other hickories have a better flavour. Taste is a very personal thing, so I will not argue with them, but nevertheless, the pecan is the most popular hickory by far. For a number of reasons, the greatest production has come from the State of Georgia in recent years, despite the fact that this tree was not found growing there before Europeans introduced it (5). You will not see Georgia included in the 'native' areas of the pecan tree. Nor will you find New Mexico, where the Stahman family have about 4000 acres, nor yet Arizona, where a farmers' cooperative have about 6000 acres in pecan trees. In all of these places, the hot, humid Eastern States of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina to the hot, dry areas of West Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, all have one thing in common, hot summers. Further north where the pecan is believed to have originated, the summer can still be quite hot, but it is considerably shorter. Consequently the nuts are smaller. I have been told by people who have had the job of judging nut competitions that the size of the 'Wichita' cultivar grown in New Mexico is consistently smaller than the same cultivar grown in Texas or Georgia. Now here is the interesting thing, however; size might have some advantages, but flavour and texture are considered more important.

Two examples of this are the cultivars 'Mahan' and 'Major'. 'Mahan' is one of the largest commercial cultivars but drew this comment from the late Professor Fred Brison: "There is one thing you can say for 'Mahan', you can eat it shell and all and you'll never notice the difference." (6) On the other hand, 'Major', considered too small to ever be commercial, is the most popular nut for home use in the kitchens of Kansas, because of its fine flavour. Housewives of America apparently do not mind the nut being small if the pecan pie has a better flavour. It may be a little like apples, where the biggest fruit is not always the most popular.

Let us look at the other advantages of multi-purpose pecan. I will start by listing a few headings; furniture, tool handles, barbeque fuel, ordinary firewood, tannin, machine cleaning and beauty.

Furniture: I was told repeatedly in the U. S. A. that people are prepared to pay a premium price for furniture made from pecan timber. This may be in the form of solid wood or as a veneer (7). I understand that top dollar is paid for furniture made from black walnut. The next highest price is paid for wild cherry wood and pecan furniture is number three in the price range. After making enquiries from both the U. S. Forest Service in Auburn, Alabama and Texas A & M University, I was told that they could not tell me anything about planting pecans for lumber. Professor J. Benton Sotrey of T.A.M.U. said, "There are literally hundreds of thousands of acres of native stands in East Texas and Louisiana alone. Many of these are pecan trees, and as natives, they often do not produce many quality nuts. As these timberlands are cleared for various reasons, the best specimens are taken for furniture, other parts of the pecan trees are taken for tool handles and the rest goes into charcoal. Even the twigs and leaves make a good mulch. Very little is wasted. With these quantities of untouched forests, why should we plant pecan trees for lumber?"

This attitude is disputed by Dr. Loy Shreve of Uvalde, Texas (8). Dr. Shreve has been advocating the advantages of pecan timber for years, but he is not getting much of a hearing from land owners. I have heard that plantings of pecan for lumber have taken place in Oklahoma, but I have no idea where. It seems that not many people are aware that the supply might run out. As a pecan tree does not grow as rapidly in New Zealand as it does in North America, and as N.Z.-grown timber has proved to be as good as U. S.-grown in timber strength, I have been suggesting that special plantings should be made even if for only tool handles. Hickory handles are still the best, but very expensive to buy. Tests show very young New Zealand-grown pecan timber is at least equal in strength to U. S. standards for 'true hickory'. From a miller's point of view, pecan woods cut easily without some of the problems associated with other species. In other words, the timber is considered a pleasure to handle as it works so well.

Barbeque Fuels: This is a popular product these days. If you buy a large bag of barbeque fuel in an American store, you will probably find written on the bag "made from wild oaks and hickories". There are also many species of oaks in North America, and these are also taken for charcoal as these native stands are cleared.

Tannin: The extraction of tannin from pecan trees is not a major industry, but I am told that there are at least two factories producing tannin commercially from pecan trees in North America. Some of it comes from the bark and some from the nut shells.

Cleaning Powder: Also taken from nut shells, there is made a fine powder that is air-blasted onto machine parts to thoroughly clean them in the workshops. This is particularly important with aircraft engines, where the technical people will not touch a piece of machinery unless it is completely clean.

Firewood: This needs little explanation. The wood burns well and gives off a good heat.

Beauty: Last, but certainly not least, we come to the aspect of beauty. Many streets in the Southern and South Eastern States of America are lined with pecan trees just for their attractive appearance. The grounds of many buildings, including churches, will often have one or two pecan trees. Parks and Reserves, around farm houses, on golf courses, many places make use of the beauty and shade of this truly multi-purpose tree.

In Australia, because many of the imported varieties come from hotter parts of America, there is a tendency to think that they must have similar conditions here. I believe that some of the more northerly varieties could grow well in Victoria and Tasmania. Please do not be put off by the claim that the nuts are not big enough. People in Texas sneer at pecans grown in Kansas. People in Kansas tell me they can get the same net weight of kernel per acre as do the growers in Texas. They also claim the nuts grown in Kansas have a better flavour. We have found in New Zealand that the nuts of a particular cultivar such as 'Wichita' are not as large as 'Wichita' in Texas or Georgia. We also claim that our flavour is better. American visitors sampling New Zealand-grown pecans have commented on their fine flavour and texture. I must confess that they have stopped short of admitting that New Zealand-grown pecans taste better, but they do say "they are very nice."

I suggest that pecan trees that are already growing well in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia can also be grown in cooler parts of the country. There may have to be some work done to find the 'right' cultivars for some regions, but the end result should be well worth the effort. Also consider the other reasons for growing this tree: furniture, tool handles, charcoal and beauty. If they can be grown successfully in Canada, and they are being grown there, then I am certain that there are few places in either Australia or New Zealand where they could not be grown, either for nut production or for one or more of the other reasons mentioned.


(1) Pecan Cultivars: Past and Present, Thompson and Young.

(2) Pecan Culture, F.R. Brison

(3) Tree Nut Culture in North America, Editor Richard A. Jaynes

(4) Personal observation

(5) Various publications of the South Eastern Pecan Growers Association

(6) Personal communication

(7) Advertising literature from Thomasville Furniture Co. U.S.A. (8) Pecan Press-Newspaper of the Texas Pecan Growers Association.

Owen Long, Nurseryman,
Auckland, New Zealand

DATE: November 1989

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