History of Pecans

Pecan Origins

The pecan is the only tree nut native to North America.  Its buttery flavor and unmatched nutritional content have resulted in its growing worldwide popularity. Tracing its origin to the 16th century, the name “pecan” is derived from the Native American (Algonquin) word “pacane” (pacane) that described “nuts requiring a stone to crack.”

The natives of pre-colonial central and eastern regions of North America and the river valleys of Mexico used pecans as a major food source because they were readily available, easier to shell than other North American nut species, and they had excellent taste. They were even used as currency among Native American peoples for a time.  Native tribes were thought to have used pecans to make a fermented drink called “Powcohicora,” from which the word “hickory” is derived. The tribes’ reliance on the nut for both nutrition and trade spurred their cultivation of the pecan tree.

A Growing Industry

In the 1700s and early 1800s American Colonists began using the popular nut in commerce, with great success. To meet demand, pecan orchards (trees planted by humans) became a companion to pecan groves (trees grown by natural forces).

Trees in groves and orchards produced nuts varying in size, shape, shell characteristics, flavor, and ripening dates Occasionally, a wild tree would yield unusually large, thin-shelled nuts, which were highly prized by customers and other buyers. But the production of such prized nuts was inconsistent and couldn’t be made so.

How do you say pecan?

There’s no right or wrong way. Three pronunciations are given in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

pi-kän    pi-kan    pē-kan

300 million

pounds per year

Pecans originated in the United States, which is the world’s largest producer.

Did you Know?

There are more than 1,000 varieties of pecans, many named for Native American Indian tribes, but only about 20 are in commercial use.

Crossing Borders

The first U.S. pecan planting took place in Long Island, NY, in 1772 and growth was rapid. By the end of the late 1700s, the pecans’ popularity had spread all along the Atlantic Seaboard, and appeared on the lands of notable easterners such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. At the same time, settlers were planting pecans in community gardens along the Gulf Coast and by 1802, the French were exporting pecans to the West Indies. The robust growth of the pecan tree (it is the largest member of the hickory family) with its smooth, delicious taste, continually drove the pecan into new areas of the country, and beyond.

Ensuring Quality and Quantity

In 1822, Abner Landrum of South Carolina discovered a budding technique that provided a way to graft, or join, pecan plants derived from superior wild varieties. This discovery was not widely known, however, until 1876, when a former African-American slave from Louisiana named Antoine successfully grafted a superior wild pecan to seedlings. Antoine’s clone won the “Best Pecan Exhibited” award at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, and it was duly recorded as the first official planting of an improved variety of pecans.

The successful use of grafting techniques led to orchards producing superior nuts and this proved to be a milestone as it resulted in consistent quality of pecans. These new techniques were adopted commercially in the 1880s and continue to be valuable tools in the creation and production of improved varieties of pecans.

Today there are more than 1,000 varieties of pecans, many named for well-known Native American Indian tribes, including Cheyenne, Choctaw, Mohawk, Shawnee and Sioux.

Pecan Technology, Edited by Charles R. Santerre
The Pecan: A History of America’s Native Nut by James McWilliams
Pecans, Agricultural Marketing Resource Center