The Elusive Pecan

Taunting me from on high

Pecans — quintessential southern nuts (I’m talking plants, not people here, folks) — were not growing on our five acres when we moved here 21+ years ago. Pecan trees (Carya illinoinensis) aren’t native to North Carolina — or the southeastern Piedmont, for that matter. They are natives of the Mississippi River valley and parts of Texas, preferring deep, rich, moist soils.

Of course, commercial growers have expanded the range of this species considerably, and you can find many groves and individual specimens growing magnificently in North Carolina, especially on our Coastal Plain, where our soils are sandier and generally more moist.

However, I have seen nice trees growing in nearby towns, and when I realized our sandy loam soils would be suitable, of course, I had to add a couple of trees to our yard. Twenty years ago, we planted two different cultivars to ensure good pollination; the male and female flowers on pecans open at different times, so you need at least two trees with compatible overlapping flowering times to ensure good fruit production.  I don’t remember the names of the cultivars we planted, but I do remember they were recommended for my area.  (I really should write such things down in a more organized fashion.)

Our two trees reside near the top of our hill beside the vegetable garden. My research tells me I live near the northern edge of the range for pecans. Late frosts can wipe out the flowers and prevent fruit production. But by planting at the top of my hill on the southern side of the yard, I provided my pecans with a bit of protection from late spring cold air pockets, and some nearby tall Red Cedars further shelter the pecans from cold winds.

The trees are now about 40 feet tall, and although I thought I planted them quite far apart, the upper branches of the two trees lightly touch each other. They’ve been reliably producing good crops of nuts for about fifteen years. I know, because every year, I can see that the trees are heavily laden with expanding nuts, their green shucks (outer coverings) blending in with the long branches.

Every year I think, “This will be the year we harvest pecans!” But every year, I’m wrong. My problem: squirrels. You’d think these voracious rodents would be satisfied by the massive number of acorns that fall from my Northern Red Oaks, Black Oaks, Water Oaks, Willow Oaks, and Southern Red Oaks, not to mention the fruits of wild blackberries, elderberries, pokeweed, and dogwood that they wrestle the birds for.

But pecans must taste as good to squirrels as they do to people. The wily fuzzy-tailed rats in my yard monitor the progress of the pecan crop very closely. They always know the moment just before the shucks will open to drop their pecan nut treasures to the ground. Before the nuts can fall so I can gather them, the squirrels strip the trees of every single nut worth eating.

This year, the pecan nut crop appears to be as heavy as our massive acorn crop. And the nuts must be nearly ready, because the furry varmints are sampling a few daily to test their ripeness. Here’s a handful I found under the trees, where the squirrels left them after conducting their ripeness tests:

Pecan carnage, courtesy of greedy squirrels

I keep thinking that eventually the trees will grow so large and so productive that the squirrels will eat their fill and there will still be some nuts left for me. However, I think perhaps I am underestimating the greed of these devious creatures.

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