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Native Nut

The pecan tree, once threatened by the push to plant cotton, has helped feed everyone from Native Americans to astronauts.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Countless numbers of pecan trees thrive in the rich soils found along most Texas rivers. Years ago, though, our state tree (and favorite native nut) was nearly decimated.

To make way for cotton, early settlers cleared pecan trees (Carya illinoensis) by the groves. Some even cut down huge specimens just to harvest one nut crop. By 1904, worried lawmakers considered making the practice illegal. Two years later, Governor James Hogg — shortly before he died — asked that a pecan tree be planted at his grave. In his honor, the pecan was named the state tree in 1919.

Long before those settlers arrived, Indians subsisted on pecans in harsh winter months. Likewise, many animals — including squirrels, opossums, raccoons and birds — eat the nutrient-rich meat. And did you know that pecans were the first fresh food eaten in space? Astronauts aboard Apollo 13 in 1970 carried them in vacuum-sealed packages.

On the commercial side, Texas ranks among the nation’s top pecan producing states. Annual harvests average about 60 million pounds. Across the state, orchards grow both native species and improved varieties, which number more than 1,000.

As for the state’s champion pecan, the title belongs to an awesome tree in Parker County. According to the Texas Big Tree Registry, the tree — located on private property — stands 91 feet tall and measures 258 inches around its trunk.

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