Uncracking the History of Pecans in North America
As a historic pecan producer and cultivator for 87 years, we like to think that we know a thing or two about these precious nuts. But the truth is, the story of pecans begins long before W.J. Stahmann ever planted his first pecan tree in 1932. Take a trip with us back in time to learn the deep-rooted history of pecans in North America and how that story keeps evolving each year.
At the very beginning:
Page 1 in the history of pecans begins long before America was settled and declared. In fact, pecans are considered a native nut to North America, growing wild for millions of years before becoming modernized by European settlement and the agricultural movement.
Here’s a few fun facts about the initial history of pecans:
- Pecans are a species of hickory native to North America.
- The scientific name for the pecan is Carya illinoinensis, which is a member of the Juglandaceae family.
- The first fossil evidence for plants within the Juglandaceae family dates back to the Cretaceous period—that was 145 million years ago!
- Evolution and differentiation continued to happen over the next 100 million years in the J. family, fine-tuning the development of the pecan up to about 45 million years ago.
- Since then, pecan nuts have naturally grown and fallen to the ground for surrounding habitats to shell and enjoy, including humans.
- Before Europeans settled in North America in the 16th century, pecans were widely traded and consumed by Native Americans, even being used as a form of currency for a period of time.
What’s in a name?
As we all know, the name “pecan” has faced much controversy over the years regarding its correct pronunciation. Depending where you’re from, the pronunciation varies from “puh-kaan” to “pee-kan”. But speaking of proper naming, where did the term “pecan” even come from?
Here’s a bit behind the naming history of pecans:
- “Pecan” is derived from the Algonquian word “pakani,” which is used to refer to various pecans, walnuts and hickory nuts.
- Pecans first became known to Europeans in the 16th century, when Spanish explorers landed in what is now Texas, Louisiana, and Mexico.
- Spanish explorers first referred to pecan nuts as nuez de la arruga, which roughly translates to “wrinkle nut” due to its appearance.
- From there, pecans made their way across the continent, with evidence of popularity rising during revolutionary times.
- The first U.S. pecan planting took place in Long Island, NY, in 1772, with the nuts considered a delicacy or luxury among Americans.
- By the end of the late 1700s, their popularity had spread all along the Atlantic Seaboard, with Thomas Jefferson even planting pecan trees in his nut orchard at his home in Virginia!
- George Washington even noted in his journal that Thomas Jefferson gave him “Illinois nuts” pecans, which he then grew at Mount Vernon, his Virginia home.
The last century or so:
Since growing in cultivation and popularity following the revolution and independence of the U.S., pecans became modernized and widespread in consumption. This time in the history of pecans is where mass production started and where our story began.
Here are a few key events in the recent history of pecans:
- Pecans were one of the most recently domesticated major crops, although already well- known among native and colonial Americans as a delicacy.
- The commercial growing of pecans in the United States did not officially begin until the 1880s, when grafting techniques were developed to allow for precise variety selection on an industrial level.
- Some of the most popular varieties including ‘Stuart’, ‘Schley’, ‘Elliott’, and ‘Desirable’ were actually developed in the 1800s and remain relatively unchanged.
- While New Orleans is known for its praline pecans (made out of pecans, sugar, milk, and butter), the famous sweet treat actually originated in France. Its popularity continued to grow in the French Quarter, where it became one of America’s earliest street foods.
- The pecan continued to grow in popularity throughout the 20th century, spiking in sales in the 1920s after a pecan pie recipe was printed on cans of Karo syrup.
- In 1932, pecans officially took root in the U.S. when our original founder, W.J. Stahmann, planted the first pecan trees on our farm, creating the first planted pecan farm and the first irrigated pecan farm in the world.
Fast-forward to today:
Today, Stahmanns Pecans continues to carry our tradition of pecan growing into modern times, with New Mexico becoming the largest pecan-producing state in the U.S. in 2019. We are honored to be part of the deep-rooted history of pecans, and can’t wait to see where it’s headed in the next 100 years!