The edible fruit of a giant tree originating in the Mississippi river valley in the United States. An important part of the diet of American Indians before the arrival of European settlers, pecans are still very popular in the United States today, especially in the South. They are widely cultivated in Texas (the pecan tree is the official state tree), New Mexico, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida. There are over 300 varieties of pecan, one of which is adapted to the colder climate of Canada.
The pecan tree was successfully grafted for the first time in 1846 by a slave named Antoine, a gardener on a Louisiana plantation who grafted a total of 126 trees. While the cultivation of the pecan tree subsequently increased steadily, the technique of grafting only resurfaced in 1877 to the detriment of sowing. However, the technique of sowing pecan trees was to remain the most effective, being easier to carry out and having a higher success rate. In Australia, the pecan tree began to be a productive crop in 1960, while in Israel the cultivation of pecans increased markedly in the 1970s.
The pecan tree can live to be very old; in fact, it is not uncommon to find specimens that are 100 years old, and some even live as long as 1,000 years. The tree can have a circumference of over 6 feet and can grow up to 180 feet in height, although the average height is between 80 and 100 feet. It is a very decorative tree, with catkin flowers similar to those of the hazel, a member of the same family. The pecan tree only begins to produce a profitable crop of nuts after 10 years, but in a good year it can yield over 400 pounds of pecans. On large plantations, the pecans are harvested mechanically by machines that shake the trees to cause the nuts to fall to the ground, where they are sucked up by another machine.
The pecan consists of an elongated seed, or kernel, that has two lobes, like the walnut. The seeds are whitish in colour and are covered by a thin brown skin. They are encased in a smooth, oval, brownish shell that is easy to break; the seed separates from the shell easily. The shell is contained in a fleshy green outer covering that splits into four parts when the fruit is ripe. Producers often alter the appearance of pecans in order to increase sales; the shells are washed and sanded, dyed brown or red, and waxed and polished to give them a more uniform and attractive appearance.
Most varieties of pecans are 1 to 1? inches in length, although size varies and is not an indication of quality. The flavour of fresh pecans improves in the 3 weeks following harvesting, after which their extremely high fat content causes them to slowly begin to turn rancid. Pecans have a slightly more delicate flavour than walnuts.