Wild pecans yield their pleasures stingily. They’re small, thickly shelled, and rocklike enough for “pecan” to have come from the Algonquian for “a nut too hard to crack by hand.”
The trees they drop from can be similarly difficult. A single wild pecan tree might generate anywhere from half to double as many nuts as its parent did—there’s no telling. Sometimes, wild pecan trees can go years without producing any fruit.
Fickle as they are, wild pecan trees served their early patrons well. Native Americans in Texas, including the Caddo, Comanche, and Kickapoo, ate and traded loads of pecans—with about 690 calories, 9 grams of protein, and 72 grams of fat per 100 grams of nuts, they pack a nutritious punch. Europeans took note. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, traveling to the Guadalupe River in 1532, deemed his destination “a river of nuts.” In 1775 George Washington, apparently knowing that pecan trees did well along rivers and bottomlands, planted “25 Mississippi nuts” near the Potomac at Mount Vernon. His fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson also installed 25 pecan trees at Monticello. Eventually, the nuts became a staple ingredient of Southern pies, candies, and cookies.
From today’s perspective, these wild, native trees seem almost quaint. In the twenty-first century, the United States produces about 300 million pounds of pecans a year and accounts for much of the world’s exports, second only to Mexico. Pecans are grown in more than a dozen states, with Texas being the third-largest producer. The transition to mass production hinged on the shift from wild to domesticated pecan varieties. These “improved” trees bear nuts with thinner shells and more nutmeat, and the yields are more reliable. Fields became factories.
Texas was central to this process. In 1973 Brownwood, two hours west of Waco, played its part in researching cultivars by donating land and facilities to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s pecan program. The USDA turned these resources into the National Clonal Germplasm Repository for Pecan, Hickories, and Chestnuts, which now houses the world’s most complete collection of domesticated pecan varieties—about 250 of them.
To be sure, there was nothing new in 1973 about domesticating pecans. The first successful pecan graft was pioneered in the mid-1840s by an enslaved Louisianian named Antoine. But the Brownwood repository was emblematic of a technologically sophisticated industry set to skyrocket into the next century, mainly by shipping improved pecans to the rest of the world.
The scale of this global reach has been astounding. American pecan exports have increased more than sixfold since 2000. The driving force behind this upsurge has been China. In 2012 China accounted for about 20 percent of U.S. pecan exports. In recent years it’s been just over 50 percent. An emerging middle class has invested considerable faith in the health benefits of America’s native nuts, which in China are dipped in salty brine or vanilla flavoring and eaten, their shells already half open, like pistachios. Bags are sold everywhere from high-end groceries to vending machines. “Pecans are good for the brain,” one Chinese consumer told a journalist, adding, “We older people should eat more pecans so we don’t get Alzheimer’s.”
But what’s healthy for the Chinese (or at least is thought to be) could be harmful to the pecan’s future. The Chinese—like other pecan importers—want uniform cultivars. This has been a boon to orchardists, and it’s no surprise that in 2020, 95 percent of U.S. pecan exports were domesticated varieties, many of them grown in places where there are no native pecans—Georgia and New Mexico, now the two leading producers in the country, most notably. But as cultivars turn wild pecans into novelty items, overall pecan diversity gives way to alarming levels of uniformity.
In Texas, one need not be an ecological catastrophist to imagine how this trend could end badly. In the fifties, before exports boomed, wild pecan trees, which have provided Texans with food and shade for generations, accounted for the majority of the state’s pecan harvest. In 2020 the number was down to 20 percent. As export demand grows and wild varieties fall out of favor, a dangerous scenario looms: Native pecan groves are cleared for more profitable uses, such as cattle, sorghum, and, in some cases, domesticated pecans. Cultivated pecans, which are genetically similar to each other, are attacked by a fungus or invasive insect that adapts to beat the trees’ defenses and destroys orchards en masse. Wild pecans, which thrive on density to reproduce but are widely dispersed, fail to create offspring.
Such a decline would be a tragedy in the classical sense, fueled by the promise of industrial agriculture, which has brought well-earned profits to hardworking orchard keepers in Texas and beyond. Should there be a collapse, the pecan, our official state nut, borne of our official state tree, may end up as little more than a fossil in a seed bank.
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “ Whither the Pecan?” Subscribe today.