Pecans : a hard nut to crack

The word ‘pecan’ is used to denote a nut, basically a species of hickory which originated in America a long time ago. Physically, pecans resemble a traditional walnut having a brown-red oval shell and tastes different when compared to other nuts.

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ORIGIN
The pecan is indigenous to the North American continent and endemic to fertile river valleys along the Mississippi River, down to West Texas and into Mexico. Historically, wild pecans were a great source of food for the indigenous peoples of North America. It was however only during later years when Europeans settled on the continent that formal cultivation began.
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The pecan tree was originally called Hicoria pecan, derived from a Native American word “powcohicora,” an intoxicating drink made from pecans, and paccan an Algonquin word meaning any hard nut requiring a stone to crack it.
After fur traders brought the nut back from Illinois in the late 17th century, the name was changed to Carva illinoinensis.
 
Thomas Jefferson planted pecan trees, ‘Carya illinoinensis,’ (Illinois nuts) in his nut orchard at his beautiful home, Monticello, in Virginia; and George Washington reported in his journal that Thomas Jefferson gave him “Illinois nuts;” pecans which grew at Mount Vernon, Virginia, George Washington’s home. The trees grew and remain majestic in height and spread proudly even today. He called agriculture “the noblest of occupations.”
 
Pecan trees are native to the United States and are found growing naturally nowhere else in the world.  Native pecan trees are found growing as far west as Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas. Nomadic tribes of Indians carried these nuts from their native habitat into other areas of the United States and planted the nuts there as seed. Some of these trees have grown and survived as ‘Goliath’ specimens, such as one seedling with a 7 foot diameter trunk that is located at the TyTy, Georgia, nursery farm.
Today a large proportion of the USA crop still originates from native trees, but the quality is poor.
Many of the cultivated species bear tribal names such as Choctaw, Pawnee and Wichita.
The quality of the pecans from cultivated trees is generally better. 
 
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VAALHARTS - THE IDEAL LOCATION FOR CULTIVATING PECANS
 
Cecil John Rhodes, diamond magnate and a premier of the Cape colony at the end of the nineteenth century, envisaged an Africa linked by a railway line from Cape Town in the South to Cairo in the North. On an exploration trip, he travelled to the Harts River Valley, bordered by the Ghaap Plateau to the West and the Marokane hills to the east.
b2ap3_thumbnail_crhodes.jpgOn this visit he was also struck by another great vision - a desert land watered by two rivers (the Vaal - and the Harts Rivers), which would eventually serve as South Africa's breadbasket. Many years however had gone by before this dream materialized, and it was only near half a century later that the first farms were handed to farmers. Since then this area has changed from a semi-desert valley (classified as Savanna - Kalahari grassland) to a tree-rich oasis so green it almost overwhelms the eye. Today a total of 35898ha (88668 acres) of land is irrigated by means of these rivers (the Vaalharts irrigation scheme) with twelve different crops being commercially cultivated. In recent years the cultivation of pecans has almost exploded in the area due to near perfect climatic and terrestrial conditions. Trees thrive in the deep alluvial soils and there is an abundance of water available. Hot summers and cold winters combined with an arid climate make very little, if any, insecticides and pesticides necessary to produce supreme quality pecans.
 
This area is today regarded by many leading academics, together with some of the leading players in the industry, as probably the best place on earth for growing supreme quality pecans. Even better conditions exist in Vaalharts than in North America, the native continent of pecans. Vaalharts may well develop in the nearby future into Mother Earth's new pecan hub. 
 
 Due to optimal conditions, the largest plantings today exist in the Vaalharts region, with the small hamlet Tadcaster as the Pecan Capital of South Africa.
 
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Only one pecan cultivar has been developed in South Africa,
 the Ukulinga.
 
 
This nut is widely acknowledged as the best for the polished nut market. 
 
 
 
 
BIOLOGYb2ap3_thumbnail_Pecans-in-shell.jpg
The pecan belongs to the Hickory family. The pecan is a large (15m-30m high), fast growing, deciduous tree with a taproot system. Both staminate and pistillate flowers exist on the same tree. These flowers develop separately from each other and the times of flowering does not necessarily overlap. Different cultivars should therefore be planted alternately in an orchard for optimal pollination and production purposes. Fruit is generally bared in clusters of 3-5 nuts, each surrounded by a husk.
 
CULTIVATION
Most pecan cultivars start bearing around their fifth year after planting and reach maturity around twelve to fifteen years. The fruit begin to ripen from mid April and gets harvested mechanically during May and June.
b2ap3_thumbnail_pecannuts-shaking.jpgThe physical characteristics of the pecans of the various cultivars are different and therefore need to be harvested separately. Separate harvesting is important to ensure a homogeneous end product.
 PROCESSING
When the harvest arrives at the processing plants different batches of the respective cultivars are weighed in and statistically representative samples are taken. Samples undergo strict grading and hygrometric testing in the laboratory. The harvest then goes to the popping plant where all extraneous materials and inedible in-shell nuts are disposed. The in-shell nuts are then classified in different sizes before they are mechanically cracked and shelled. 
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SELECTION
 
Currently all selection takes place by hand, which ensures a premium quality product.
 
As volumes are expected to increase in the near future, electronic selection will be implemented, without compromising quality.
 
 
 
 
 
 
POLLINATION
Pollination is not an important factor for pecan trees in most of the South and in areas where the pecan trees are native. The reason for this is that pecan trees are wind pollinated and pollen from a tree ten miles away can be pollinated if wind currents are favorable to transfer the pollen from one tree to the other.
Some trees are self-pollinating, such as the ‘Desirable’ cultivar of pecan, because the pollen and the female flowers both mature near the same time.b2ap3_thumbnail_pecan-vroublom.gif
 
Other pecan cultivars have pollen that matures too soon or too late to be effective in pollination of the female flowers.
 
There are enough pecan trees in most naturalized areas of the pecan zones to provide adequate cross-pollination; however, the ‘Desirable’ pecan is generally considered to be the best all-around pollinator,
and most orchardists plant one of these pollinator trees at each end of the pecan orchard to ensure complete pollination.
 
 
 
  
Life Cycle of pecans in South Africa

b2ap3_thumbnail_pecan-manblom.gifThe pecan life cycle begins in October, when the trees start to flower, producing both male and female flowers for pollination.

Not all pecan trees can pollinate themselves because the male and female flowers are not ready at the same time.

So we plant various cultivars of pecan trees at strategic locations to cross pollinate and thus optimizing pollination.

After pollination the pecan nuts start developing in a protective shell called a shuck. The pecan nut inside has a shell of its own.

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_pecan-hardshellmarch.gifFrom March to April the Pecan nut’s shell starts to harden while it is still inside the protective outer shuck (the green outer layer that we can see).

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From April the shuck hardens and dries out exposing the pecan nut inside.

We now start harvesting the pecans by shaking the trees with a mechanical shaker.

 

 

 PECAN PRODUCTS

Generally four Grades of pecans are commercially available.
SPECIAL RESERVE HALVES:
These are completely unblemished pecans that epitomize the high standard of pecan that make them extremely popular with all clients from high street chocolatiers to the most discerning individual.
CHOICE HALVES:
This selection has all kernels that are larger than 17mm but may have a small bit broken off. Some whole kernels are smaller than 17 mm and they are included in this selection.
EXTRA LARGE PIECES:
Ideal for a range of functions this selection has no intact whole kernels. 10 - 15 mm size specially selected for baking, muesli making and Granola mixes as well as for snack packs and trail mixes.
SMALL PIECES:
Ideal for baking and confectionery needs. Small Pieces are 5-10mm in size and are perfect for baking mixes and snack bars.

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PECANS OR WALNUTS- NOT A HARD NUT TO CRACK
Amongst all the nuts from the tree nut family, the most commonly confused are pecans and walnuts because of their unique similarities in appearance, taste, as well as health benefits.
Though pecan literally means a nut that requires a stone to crack it or too hard to be cracked by hand, differentiating it from a walnut which is not that hard. Have a look at some of their distinguishing features:
Spot the difference
• Shells: The shell of a walnut is very light brown in color and round-shaped while that of a pecan is oval or oblong shaped and a darker brown colour.
• Shape: Walnuts resemble a human brain in shape and are larger and broader than the pecans whereas the latter are elliptical, with long, deep ridges travelling along the length of the nut.
• Taste: As pecans have low oil content, they taste sweeter and drier compared to walnuts which have a bold, slightly bitter flavor leaving an oily feel in the mouth. This is one of the reasons why walnuts are preferred roasted before using in certain recipes.

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Descriptions of Cultivars:
A large number of pecan varieties have been developed through the selection of desirable seedling trees. Selection of disease resistant varieties is a major consideration in areas experiencing high humidity and poor air circulation. Description of some of the promising pecan cultivars is given below.
1. Stuart
It is a popular old cultivar which has originated as seedling in Mississippi. Nuts are large, of high quality and with well defined markings and a fairly thick shell. The tree is a moderate bearer.
2. Desirable
It is a hybrid between Success x Jewett or Russell. The nut is large with a semi thin shell which cracks easily. The tree comes to bearing early, very prolific and regular bearer and is also resistant to scab. The planting of this variety with other varieties facilitates pollination.
3. Nellis
Nuts are long and shells are thin. Kernels are of good quality.
b2ap3_thumbnail_Pecan-Pie-Syrup.jpg4. Mahan
The tree is vigorous, precocious, prolific bearer with good foliage. The nuts are extra large shell, thin and tend to poor filling on older trees. It is a good variety for the areas which receive abnormal rainfall.
5. Western
It is the most commonly planted cultivar in the U.S.A. and has originated from the cross between a seedling and the variety Texas. Nuts are medium sized, thin shelled and having good kernel quality. It is a prolific bearer and suitable for high density planting. It is susceptible to scab disease.
6. Wichita
It is a hybrid between Halbert X Mohan. It is very popular cultivar being one of the most precocious and prolific of all cultivars. The nuts are of medium size, attractive appearance, high quality and have high kernel percentage. It is susceptible to scab disease. For effective pollination, the cultivar should be grown with Western or Cheyenne.
7. Cheyenne
It is a cross between Clark and Adom. The tree is very precious, productive, scab resistant and recommended for high density planting. For effective pollination, it should be grown with Wichita.
8. Mohawk
It is a cross between Success X Mahan. The tree is precocious, prolific, vigorous and fairly resistant to disease. Nuts are elongated, thin shelled, very attractive and have kernel percentage of 55-60. The kernels are quite smooth, easily shelled and of high quality.
9. Burkett
Nuts are large round with a semi thin shell. They are not easily separated from the kernel.
10. Elliott
It is an early maturing with small round nut. The nuts have medium thick shell and good flavor. The trees are vigorous and regular bearer. It is resistant to scab disease.
11. Curtis
The variety is suitable for lower elevations experiencing a long growing season. The nut is small thin shelled suitable for shelling. The kernel is of high quality. It is moderately resistant to scab disease.b2ap3_thumbnail_pecan-facts.jpg
12. Pawnee
This is a selection from Mohawk X Starking Hardy Giant crosses. It is an early, prolific and fast growing variety in young age. Nut quality is excellent with good size, appearance and kernel percentage. The plant is tolerant to scab disease.
13. Moore
It produces good crops of small nuts but it is susceptible to scab.
14. Cape Fear
The variety produces fairly large nuts. Shell cracks well and possesses high quality. Trees are highly productive and start bearing fruit after seven to eight years of age.
15. Ukulinga
This variety has originated as a chance seedling in South Africa. It is suitable for humid tropical regions. The nuts are large, shell medium thick and kernel percentage is 52 -54. It is less prone to irregular bearing

 

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