For the past month, as they typically do this time of year, pecan trees all over the hill country have been dropping their nuts. The commercial growers have large stands of the trees, of course, which supply a vast human marketplace wanting the pecans. But, wild pecan trees are also found in the millions throughout rural areas of the state, and in and around the cities and towns of Texas, where the nuts fall indiscriminately on the sidewalks and yards for the birds and squirrels to consume. Most Texans know that the pecan tree is the state tree of Texas, but few may realize just how far back the relationship between this tree and the land go.
The tree, native only to North America, is believed to have had its origins in what is now Texas and parts of northern Mexico. Fossils of the tree, pre-dating human activity, have been found in the area. And while, over time, the native trees eventually spread north up the Mississippi River Valley and east along the Gulf of Mexico, the migration all started in Texas.
The first native people to the area recognized the value of the pecan as a food source, and made their way through the region during the latter part of every year to collect the nuts which would help sustain them during the winter. Later, as the first Europeans began exploring and settling the region, they also recognized the value of the pecan tree for both food and the utilization of the tree’s wood for other purposes, including furniture, tools, and fuel for fires. Later, the stands of these trees were cleared for other agricultural uses. In time, it all took its toll, and by 1900 or so, the large stands of native pecan trees, which had flourished since before the advent of humans in the area, were in real danger in Texas.
Recognition was finally given to the tree for its importance to Texas in 1919, when it was officially proclaimed the official state tree of Texas. Today, Texas is one of the leading producers of pecans in the United States.
Pecan trees have been known to live for a thousand years, produce nuts for hundreds of years, and grow to well over one hundred feet. As already noted, they initially provided food for native populations, and later, a source for both food and wood helping America establish its presence on the frontier.
Today, the pecan trees provide both employment and enjoyment for people who consume the sweet nuts in candy, pies, fresh out of the shell, roasted or salted. The wood is still used today, both for making furniture, and for the smoking of beef, sausage, chicken, pork, and fish. And, for all those trees in yards across Texas, they provide great shade from the scorching Texas sun.
People in Texas like to brag about how “everything is bigger in Texas.” But, if truth be told, the biggest things in Texas have always been the pecan trees, not just because of their physical size, but in all that they have provided over thousands of years to sustain life, and more recently, to furnish great pleasure to people through the gift of their nuts and wood.