Pecans, America’s Only Native Nut: A Brief History
If food can be considered patriotic, pecans definitely make the cut. The only common tree nut native to North America, the pecan has loyally accompanied Americans throughout our continent’s history - from the diets of 17th century Native Americans to the gardens of our founding fathers, all the way to our own tables and into Nutkrack cans today.
Pecans aren’t indigenous to any region besides North America, specifically central and eastern North America and parts of Mexico. Dating back to the 1600s, pecans were a staple of Native Americans’ diets. They found them in the wild and ate them whole, made them into one of the first nut milks, and traded them for other foods or goods. In fact, the word “pecan” comes from the Algonquin Native American tribes and originally described “all nuts requiring a stone to crack.” Over the next two centuries, Native Americans began planting and harvesting pecan trees, a practice that Spanish and English colonists adopted as well.
The popularity of pecans grew in the late 1700s, when people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were planting pecan trees in their personal gardens. Around the same time, the pecan trade industry picked up speed. Trade really boomed in New Orleans, where the fertile land was ideal for harvesting and ties to major trade routes allowed for the redistribution of pecans around the world.
Pecan production continued to rise into the 20th century. In 1920, 2.2 million pounds of pecans were produced; today, that figure is closer to 250-300 million pounds. Today, more than 80 percent of the world’s pecans are harvested in the U.S. Many of these pecans go to China and the U.K., the largest consumers of U.S. pecans. Knowing the intricacies of pecan production makes these numbers even more impressive. For example, a pecan tree must be planted a full ten years before it can produce a tree of nuts. The wait pays off, though; after these initial ten years a pecan tree actively produces nuts for 100+ years.
Next time you eat a pecan, feel some pride: these incredible little treats have graced our land for centuries.
American Pecan Council
Hudson Pecan Company