Although it might come as something of a surprise if you count both wild varieties of pecans and cultivars that have been developed by man, there are over 1,000 types of pecans currently in existence, and more are being worked on by horticulturists even as you read these words.
Botanically, the pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis) is a member of the Juglandaceae – or Walnut – family of trees and bushes. A deciduous tree that can grow to more than 130 feet tall and spread over 75 feet wide, it is closely related to the hickory and walnut nut-bearing trees. The edible fruit – commonly referred to as a nut (as shall be the case throughout the rest of this article) – is actually not a nut at all, but rather technically a drupe (or stone fruit); the crunchy, yummy part that we enjoy eating is actually the seed of the tree, found inside the ‘pit’ (or shell). Pecan trees can routinely live (and produce) for over a century.
The pecan tree is native to the warmer regions of North America – particularly parts of what is now the Southern United States and Northern Mexico – and is still mostly grown in these areas. The nuts are believed to have been consumed by the indigenous peoples in these areas for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the Europeans. After colonization, wild pecan trees became a popular addition to many southern plantations – more as a novelty than anything else – and were grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and George Washington at Mount Vernon. Serious domestication and commercial cultivation of the pecan as a cash crop didn’t actually start until the early 1880s.
The United States is the leader in worldwide commercial pecan production, accounting for between 275 and 300 million pounds (about 70%) annually, and is followed by Mexico; together, they account for over 90 percent of the annual worldwide crop. Commercial pecan growers will generally plant several types of trees in their orchards, primarily for pollination purposes. In all, 15 US states produce pecans commercially. Pecan trees are also popular with home growers, particularly in the Southern, Southwestern, and lower Midwestern United States.
So what are some of the most common types of pecans being offered today?
Desirable is among the most widely commercially grown pecan cultivars throughout the United States and is considered by many to be the ‘standard’ by which other pecan varieties are measured. Developed by grower Carl Forkert in Jackson County, Mississippi, in the early 1900s, it was finally introduced to the commercial market in 1945 and widely planted throughout the 1960s. By the early 1990s, Desirable was the most planted pecan tree in the United States and remains extremely popular in both the commercial (grocery store) and industrial foods markets. If you are a regular consumer of pecans, the odds are good that you have eaten a Desirable.
Although the Desirable tree is susceptible to a number of diseases – particularly Pecan Scab – it is favored by growers for both its product reliability and the quality of the pecans. The nuts are large (about 40 per pound), well-filled (meaning there is not a lot of empty space in the shell), medium to soft, quite easy to crack the shell, and halve well. They have the standard pecan flavor, are widely used in commercial baking, and stand up to cooking and freezing well. The Desirable is quite popular with home growers as it grows fairly quickly, will usually produce nuts by its 4th year, and has some resistance to cold; however, they do require a great deal of work and attention to keep them disease-free.
Widely cultivated by commercial growers throughout the Southeastern portion of the United States – and particularly in Georgia – the Stuart was developed during the 1880s and released commercially by Colonel W. R. Stuart of Ocean Springs, Mississippi, in 1890. Unlike the Desirable, the Stuart is resistant to Pecan Scab but is quite susceptible to both black and yellow aphids and several common pecan diseases; it is, however, an excellent and consistent producer. It also has good resistance to cold, making it quite popular with commercial growers further north in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Northern Georgia.
The nuts themselves are medium-sized and slightly smaller than those produced by Desirable – averaging around 50 per pound. They have one of the best ‘fill’ ratios of all commercially grown pecans and halve relatively well, although their shells are harder and thicker than most of the ‘paper’ cultivars, making them more difficult than some other varieties to open, which limits their use in industrial food processing. The flavor is considered to be excellent. The Stuart is quite popular with home growers throughout the world due to its sturdiness, ease of maintenance, and consistent nut yields. The tree will normally start producing nuts in years 6-8, depending on specific conditions.
The Cape Fear pecan was developed at the North Carolina State University Horticultural Department’s Coastal Plain Research Station and released to the market in the late 1930s. As it does not have particularly good resistance to cold, it is most widely grown in the Deep South, Texas, and parts of Mexico. The tree is a heavy producer – particularly in its younger years (8-30) – and has good resistance to Pecan Scab in most areas, so it is also often planted in orchards where this is a prevalent concern. The nut is average size (50-55 per pound), well-filled, and has a relatively thin shell that is easy to crack and halves quite well; the kernel is lighter than many other varieties with an almost golden color and a better-than-average flavor, making it quite popular in the confection industry. The Cape Fear is among the earliest producing pecan varieties, often yielding crops beginning in its 3rd season.
Discovered by Dr. W.E. Moreland in Powhatan, Louisiana, and released in 1945, the Moreland is believed to be an offspring of the Schley pecan – one of the original pecan cultivars. This tree has outstanding resistance to Pecan Scab and several other diseases – as well as drought and more intense heat – and is widely commercially cultivated in areas where this is especially prevalent, including its home state of Louisiana, Florida, and some parts of South America. The Moreland is known for its excellent yields of well-filled, medium-size nuts (between 55 and 60 per pound) with medium-thick shells and well-formed kernels. The tree will normally start producing in its 4th or 5th year and is quite popular with home growers both for its sturdiness and for attracting songbirds and butterflies.
First discovered by H. Elliot (growing on his lawn in Milton, Florida) in 1912 and released to the market in 1919, the Elliot is considered by some pecan ‘connoisseurs’ to be the best-tasting pecan variety on the market today. The tree is one of the most disease-resistant varieties and is widely grown throughout the warmer pecan-producing areas as it has very little tolerance for cold weather but survives drought conditions better than many other varieties. The nuts are on the small side (averaging 75 to 80 per pound) with a tear-drop shape medium thick shell; plump kernels that produce consistently perfect halves; a higher than average oil content; and a rich, buttery flavor with a hint of hickory. They are most commonly eaten out of hand and stand up exceptionally well to baking and freezing. Elliots are generally more expensive than most other common pecans and can usually be found in specialty markets and gourmet grocery stores. The Elliot tree will normally start producing nuts in the 6th year.
The Western Schley was discovered in San Saba, Texas, in 1895 and released to the market in the mid-1920s. Today, as the name suggests, it is the most widely grown pecan variety in the Western growing region, which includes Southwest Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Oklahoma; it is also commercially cultivated in Australia and Israel. Due to its high susceptibility to Pecan Scab and ‘downy spot’, the tree needs a very hot, dry environment in which these are not an issue to thrive. The tree produces a small to medium size well-filled oblong nut (between 60 and 70 per pound depending on soil conditions) with a rougher-than-average, fairly thin shell, and a very high-quality flavor. The Western Schley is a relatively low-maintenance, high-producing tree that will usually begin nut production in its 4th year, making it a favorite of both commercial and home growers throughout the Southwestern US.
First developed through cross-breeding at the US Department of Agriculture’s Experimental Research Station (USDA-ARS) in Brownwood, Texas, in 1963 and released to the market after over 20 years of study and refinement in 1984, in the last two decades, the Pawnee has become popular with commercial growers throughout the Northern and Western pecan growing regions. The tree has excellent resistance to cold and aphids, with only average resistance to Pecan Scab. The nuts are large – averaging about 50 per pound – with a fairly thin, easily cracked shell and a sweeter-than-average standard pecan flavor, making the Pawnee a favorite for use in baked goods. In recent years the Pawnee has been increasing in popularity with home growers and small orchard owners with limited space due to the fact that it is one of the smaller pecan tree varieties that will average 30 to 40 feet tall and spread 25 feet. It will normally start producing nuts in its 6th year.
Another product of the USDA-ARS in Brownwood, Texas, the Kiowa pecan, was developed in 1953 and released to the market in 1976. The Kiowa tree prefers very warm, humid conditions and is widely grown throughout South Texas, as well as Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, and South Carolina. It has very little resistance to cold and moderate resistance to disease. A relatively slow-growing tree, it is often planted in orchards dominated by Desirable for cross-pollination purposes. The tree produces a quite large nut (40 to 45 per pound) on par with Desirable with a thinner, well-filled, heavily marked, attractive shell. The kernels are fairly dark, halve well, and have a standard pecan flavor. It will normally begin producing nuts in year 4 and is very popular with home growers due in large part to its thicker-than-average, lush foliage.
Developed and collectively released by the USDA and university agricultural experiment stations in Texas, Georgia, and Louisiana in 1989, the Oconee has grown in popularity in the last couple of decades with commercial growers throughout the US and Mexican ‘pecan belt’. The tree has better than average resistance to the most common pecan diseases as well as some tolerance for cold and produces a high yield of fairly large, well-filled nuts (about 50 per pound) with a medium shell that is easy to crack. The kernels halve quite well and have an excellent flavor with a hint of extra sweetness. The tree is fairly low maintenance and will usually start producing nuts in the 4th year.
Originating in Jackson County, Mississippi, and released in 1913, the aptly named Candy pecan was once widely commercially cultivated for use in the confection industry, although since the 1940s has been largely supplanted by other pecan varieties and today is grown in large commercial orchards mostly as a pollinator. Still popular with smaller commercial and home growers, the Candy tree is most often grown in Louisiana, Florida, and parts of Texas. The tree is resistant to Pecan Scab and produces relatively small (about 75 per pound), well-filled oval nuts with a ‘paper’ shell, a smoother than the average kernel, and a good standard flavor. A prolific and reliable producer starting in about year 4, like the Kiowa the Candy is highly valued as a landscaping tree due to its thick foliage and ease of maintenance.
Pecan trees (and the nut itself) are susceptible to a wide variety of pests and diseases; wild pecan trees also require quite specialized soil and climatic conditions to produce well. The aggressive breeding and selection programs in the pecan industry – which started in the 1890s in the United States and which account for the relatively large number of ‘types’ of pecans – were started (and continue) to address these issues, as well as to increase nut size and production, create thinner (called ‘paper’ in the industry) and easier cracking shells, and lighten nut (kernel) color. The industry standard for measuring nut size is nuts-per-pound.
Other commercially producing nations include South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, China, Australia, and Israel. In the US, Georgia is the top producing state, followed closely by Texas and New Mexico – together, these three states account for about 75% of US pecan production.
Generally speaking, the most popular types of pecans have more or less the same rich, buttery flavor – although there can be some minor variations in sweetness – and are enjoyed fresh out of hand; in pies, cookies, and cakes; and in confections (particularly pralines). Pecans are very high in fat and are also rich in dietary fiber, manganese, zinc, iron, phosphorus, and many of the B vitamins – particularly thiamin (B1).