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Pecan Nuts: How to Care for and Cultivate the Tree in the Orchard

Discover the art of cultivating the long-lived, majestic pecan trees in your orchard and savor the delightfully nutritious pecan nuts they yield.

by BioGrow

Pecan nuts are delicious and highly nutritious fruits. The tree they come from is native to North America. This cultivar is intriguing for several reasons. Firstly, it adapts well to our cultivation areas, especially in the central-southern regions. Additionally, it’s a long-lived and majestic tree, highly productive, making it suitable for cultivation as a unique specimen in home orchards. Furthermore, this type of nut is among the most nutritious fruits available and serves various purposes, offering an alternative to our traditional nuts like walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts.

Let’s explore the characteristics of this tree and learn how to plant and care for it in our orchard.

Botanical Identification of the Pecan Tree

Pecan treeThe pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis) belongs to the botanical family Juglandaceae, the same as the well-known common walnut (Junglans regia). The pecan is the most significant North American nut tree, prevalent in many regions of the United States and Mexico. Its origins are ancient. It was cultivated by Native American populations, who used pecans as a significant food source. The primary geographical area of subsequent spread is the Mississippi Valley in the southeast United States. Here, it grows naturally in moist, alluvial soils. Today, apart from the USA, pecan nuts are cultivated in Australia, Israel, Brazil, and South Africa. More recently, they have also found space in Europe, especially in specialized plots, particularly in Spain and Italy.

Botanical Characteristics of the Pecan Tree

Squirrel on a pecan treeThe pecan tree can reach significant dimensions, with majestic growth. Adult plants can exceed 50 meters in height and have a crown diameter of over 8 meters.
It’s a long-lived tree, capable of living for several centuries. It has rapid initial growth but only enters into good production after approximately 10-12 years of life. It’s a deciduous tree, losing its leaves during winter. The leaves are of a beautiful intense green color, elongated in shape, alternately arranged on the branches in odd numbers, varying from 9 to 15 per branch.

Flowers

The pecan is also a monoecious and self-fertile species, exhibiting a distinct sexual distinction in its flowers. The male flower, called a catkin, is grouped in clusters of 2 to 8, in characteristic pendulous grape-like inflorescences. The female flower is simple and appears in terminal star-shaped clusters. Flowering, and subsequently fruiting, occurs on year-old branches in late spring when female flowers open to receive pollen released by male flowers. Pollination is anemophilous, meaning it’s carried out by the wind. To maximize production, cross-pollination is required, performed by other plants of the same species. This is because the maturation of male and female inflorescences occurs somewhat asynchronously, and pollen must arrive from flowers of other plants. However, if the flowering period isn’t hindered by environmental factors, even a single plant can self-pollinate and produce.

Fruits

Pecan nutsPecan nuts differ slightly from the classic nuts we are accustomed to, more in their outer shape than in the edible part. In pecans, the actual nut is wrapped in an elongated husk, soft in texture and light green in color. Inside the husk, the shell develops, also elongated, with a thin, smooth surface and typical dark streaks. Inside, the kernel forms, very similar to that of walnuts, covered by a thin skin. Its taste is delightful even when fresh. The complete ripening of the fruit occurs in October, usually after our local nuts. The easiest method to collect pecans is to wait for them to fall to the ground. After falling, timely harvesting is necessary since the shell tends to spoil when in contact with soil and moisture. Once collected, pecans should be stored in a cool, dry place, in jute sacks that allow for breathing. We will explore later the properties and uses of these precious fruits.

Pecan Nut Varieties and Reproduction Methods

There are approximately 500 varieties of pecans, categorized as:

  • Oriental: more suitable for warm-humid climates
  • Western: more resistant to drought

In Italy, among the most cultivated and well-adapted varieties, we remember: Kiowa, Wichita, and Shoshoni. Reproduction can occur from seeds, but it’s more practical to purchase grafted pecan trees from specialized nurseries. The best period for planting young plants is during the dormant period, between November and February. Given the large crown size, the planting distance should be ample: 8 meters apart from each other.

Pecan tree Cultivation

Climate Requirements

For its natural beauty and excellent productivity, the pecan tree is great for cultivation even in domestic settings. It is a shade tree of high ornamental value. During the winter dormant period, it withstands cold temperatures, even dropping below -10 °C. However, its long vegetative season recommends cultivation in coastal regions with milder climates. Here, occurrences of early cold or frost are less common. To prevent breakage of upper branches, it’s recommended to select areas well-exposed to sunlight yet sheltered from winds. The ideal developmental conditions for this tree are found in the central-southern regions.

Soil

Good soil is essential for successful pecan nut cultivation. The ideal soil should be deep and fertile, with a medium texture, allowing excellent water drainage. Sandy soils are acceptable as they facilitate drainage.
Clayey and compacted soils, however, are discouraged as they hinder root growth depth and drain water to deeper soil layers.
The ideal soil pH is neutral, ranging between 5.5 and 6.5. Hence, meticulous attention to soil preparation before planting. We recommend deep plowing combined with good organic fertilization. For initial soil fertilization, mature manure or alternatively pelleted manure can be used. Additionally, annual organic fertilization can be repeated. To do so, just apply some mature manure, home compost, or wood ash around the tree. For soil management, the best technique is permanent mulching. This facilitates better water absorption from precipitation and prevents erosive phenomena that could damage the root system.

Irrigation

Pecan trees require water, especially during their initial years. During hot seasons, it’s important to avoid plant stress due to water scarcity. Hence, if rainfall is insufficient, substantial irrigation is necessary. However, once the tree has matured and developed a deep root system, intervention is unnecessary. Normal rainfall is sufficient from this stage onward.

Pruning

In pecans, pruning interventions are aimed at maintaining an orderly canopy and a harmonious, balanced posture. Decisive intervention is discouraged as it goes against the tree’s natural growth and risks compromising productivity. During the first 2-3 years of growth, no pruning should be done to allow the main branches to form the framework. From the third year onwards, initial interventions can start. Firstly, remove branches that might intertwine and disrupt each other. Ensure that the tree receives light inside by thinning out some internal branches to prevent overcrowding. Another pruning operation involves cleaning damaged or dead parts of the tree. This step is necessary to ensure adequate lymphatic circulation. These limited interventions should be done during the dormant period, before the vegetative restart. February is the ideal month for pecan tree pruning.

Adversities and Pests

As it’s not a crop intensively practiced in Italy, there are no pests damaging pecan nuts like in the USA. This is a huge advantage for growers, reducing concerns about harmful insects or diseases. The main problems can be due to nutritional deficiencies or more frequently to poor water drainage, which can cause severe decline.

Nutritional Properties and Uses of Pecan Nuts

Pecan nuts are a food with exceptional nutritional properties. Firstly, they have a high energy value, about 700 kcal per 100 g. This makes them an excellent food for athletes and those needing quick replenishment. It’s understood that the food isn’t suitable for those following a weight-loss diet. The kernel, very tasty and tender, contains up to 70% oil. Of this, 73% consists of monounsaturated oleic fatty acids. The remaining 17% is composed of polyunsaturated linoleic fatty acids, known as “good fats” due to their unsaturated nature. The richness of monounsaturated fatty acids makes these nuts an excellent natural antioxidant. Oleic acids, in fact, are similar to those found in olives and extra virgin olive oil, foods that combat coronary diseases. They’re also rich in vitamins, especially Vitamin E, A, B, and C. Pecan nuts are recommended for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet, being rich in protein (7%) and dietary fiber (7%). A complete food, therefore, whose nutritional values help us understand its importance in the diet of Native Americans. Pecan nuts are versatile, used from consuming them as they are (both fresh and dried) to their use in pastry and artisanal preparations. The pecan nut pie is extremely famous, and we highly recommend trying it. It’s an excellent dried fruit to use in making creams and ice creams, much like with pistachios. Lastly, we shouldn’t underestimate the market price these nuts can reach: over 10 euros per kilo. For a small cultivator, therefore, they can become an excellent income opportunity.

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