By Jill J Easton
Wild pecans are the most delicious tree nuts on our planet. There are no better pecan pralines or pies than those made with these smaller hard-shelled trees of the wild woods. The flavor is rich, sweet and creamy in your mouth and beats out the much larger improved varieties like Stuart, Moreland and Cape Fear.
If you live in the right part of the country and are willing to search, you will be able to collect all you want for free from your nearest patch of bottomland forest. Check with your area Cooperative Extension Service or wildlife agency to see if they grow where you live.
Pecans are members of the hickory family and are among the last trees to put on leaves in the spring which almost always protects them from late killing frost. So even when other mast trees like oaks, walnuts, persimmons and even hickories don’t make nuts, wildlife can still depend on pecans.
There are also health reasons for eating pecans. The nuts contain a number of healthy fats and the antioxidant vitamin E that can help reduce cholesterol, prevent cell degenerative diseases and protect your heart. Eaten in moderation, pecans can also help manage weight.
Finding Wild Pecan Trees
Time for a quick clarification. There are two kinds of wild pecans in Arkansas and in most of the south: wild pecans and the bitter pecans. The bitter pecan is technically called water hickory and will almost always be found close to lakes, rivers or swamps. It has shaggy bark, a flattened nut that is almost impossible to remove from the shell and tastes bad.
Wild pecans are very different. They are bottomland trees, but don’t like to stand in water. At 100 to 140 feet they often tower above their sweet gums, sycamore and pin oak neighbors. Like all pecans, this tree needs fertile well-drained dirt and plenty of water.
To find pecan trees in the woods, look for long, frond-like leaf stems with six or more leaves on each side that are curved and have fine serrations along the edge. At this time of year, a grown tree that is going to produce will have hundreds of elongated husks that will be in clumps at the ends of branches. The nut coverings will be green with black spots. Mature pecan trees tower over the competition.
If the nut coverings are bigger, about the size of a medium egg, and round, the tree is most likely a walnut. Either way you are a winner. Both nuts are delicious, although walnuts are much more trouble to open.
When the pecans are ripe, the leaves will mostly be gone, then the husks open and wind blows the nuts to the ground. The nuts usually start falling in mid to late fall depending on the part of the country and are worth picking up until late winter in most places.
The big problem with collecting enough nuts for your needs is the competition. Next to white oak acorns, pecans are the most desired nut in the fall. Deer, squirrels, turkeys and an ark of other animals all vie for the delicious, high calorie, oily nuts.
When you have located your trees, relax and wait until the weather turns cool and then gather your gear, but don’t tell anyone where your trees are located. Harvesting wild pecans takes equipment.
You will need something to hold pecans that is sturdy and easy to carry. If your trees are far in the woods, a big backpack will work; our trees are on the side of a river and a road runs near them. We collect nuts in the reusable grocery bags that are made out of plastic or canvas or plastic gallon ice cream tubs with handles. Most of these bags will stand up open which is convenient. A kneeling pad is a good idea and a short-handled rake will make finding the nuts among the leaves much easier.
Ripe pecans are brown with black spots, are shaped like the Goodyear Blimp and will range from ¾ to one inch in size depending on the tree and the year. If the nuts are still firmly attached to the husk, they aren’t good.
Almost every year, Jim and I pick up several hundred pounds of nuts, but it only takes a few pounds of pecans in the shell to make a pie or a delightful snack. Let your nuts dry for a week or two before starting the cracking and picking process.
Now that you know how to locate pecan trees, relax, practice your deer and squirrel killing skills, but look up for the tell-tale nut husks and wait for the first strong, cold winds of fall. Stalking these trees early is the best way to prepare for a delectable feast in the future.
Next month we will talk about opening pecans and some of the delicious treats that these tasty nuts make.