Think of pecans and Georgia groves come to mind but the Peach State traces its reputation in the nut industry to real estate developers who, from the late 1890s to about 1920, sold thousands of five acre tracts of newly planted pecan seedlings to Northerners as retirement investments. The natural range of pecans was further west, from Louisiana to central Texas, north through eastern Oklahoma and Kansas and most of Missouri, north up the Mississippi River bottomlands to southeastern Iowa and central Illinois, up the Ohio River to southern Indiana and western Kentucky, and east to central Tennessee and western Alabama. Its thin shell and large kernel (nearly half the weight of the nut) made it a favorite food for Native Americans and its popularity with European settlers grew when traders and trappers brought the nuts to the east along with their beaver skins--long before American pioneers crossed the Allegheny Mountains. Like the black walnut, the pecan is an excellent shade tree and produces valuable timber as well as nuts.
Nuts or Wood?
While any pecan tree can produce nuts, growing trees specifically for nut production differs dramatically from growing for high quality timber. Trees in the nut orchard have short trunks and wide spreading branches: all of the leaf energy is channeled into producing nuts rather than wood. Improved cultivars which produce good-tasting nuts with a high percentage of kernel (50-59% as compared with ~40% from wild trees) that crack out into large pieces are grafted to wild or improved root stock.
General Production Notes:
The best pecan production sites have deep, well-drained, fertile soils. Native pecans grow in the deep alluvial soils found along major rivers and streams. While regarded as flood-tolerant, the trees cannot persist in soils that remain saturated for extended periods. Pecans will grow on upland sites with deep, well-drained soils. They can be grown without irrigation but drought will reduce production in both the current growing season and that which follows. Pecans are the fastest growing member of the hickory family and are used as the root stock when grafting other species of hickory. Although there is not sufficient difference across its range to warrant subdividing the pecan species, there are cultivars which are considered more representative of a “Northern pecan” which originated in the northern part of pecan range and can be successfully grown in the northern parts of the eastern United States. Unlike the huge nuts grown in southern commercial orchards, the Northern pecan is smaller (100-180 nuts/pound) and sweeter. Pecan orchards can be established by planting stratified nuts as well as transplanting bare root and container-grown nursery stock. If you are planting grafted trees, be certain to select cultivars resistant to scab. Pecan trees bear both male and female flowers on the same tree. The period when pollen is shed on a tree is usually different from when the stigmas on the female flower on the same tree are receptive to pollen. Where there are nearby native trees, there should be adequate wind-blown pollen available to fertilize your trees. If there are no nearby pecans, plant both protandrous (tree sheds pollen before the stigma is mature) and protogynous (stigma matures before the tree sheds pollen) cultivars. Many cultivars that grow best in Missouri are not readily available from commercial nurseries but scionwood is can be obtained from local growers. Trees should be planted on a minimum 30’ X 30’ spacing. Pecan trees can be long lived and will require thinning when the closing canopy affects production. Nut production generally begins 4-6 years after grafting. Pecan trees and nuts are subject to significant insect problems, including pecan nut casebearer, hickory shuckworm, pecan weevil, fall webworm, and walnut caterpillar. Pecan scab can render a nut crop worthless: plant resistant cultivars. Young trees left unprotected may be damaged when they are browsed or rubbed by deer.