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I was recently back at the family farm (which is in the Ohio Valley). Since I almost never go there in late autumn it gave me a precious opportunity to see some of my favorite trees wearing their brilliant fall raiment. Unfortunately I am no photographer–and I never found the time to paint a watercolor painting of autumn’s beauty–however I wanted to share the two most magnificent trees.

Here is the bald cypress which we planted to emulate grandpa’s bald cypress in Weston (which was apparently chopped down the moment he left his house). This tree is a young bald cypress, and it would still be in middle school if it was a human (which fortunately it is not, since it would be a dull child standing beside a goose pond all day), however it is already beginning to develop the knobby swamp knees and flying buttresses characteristic of the great cathedral cypresses of the southern swamp. It is maybe 6 meters (20 feet tall) and it is growing fast. I wish I could have captured the beauty of its warm orange fronds, because in the setting sun they glowed like it was a little ember from the November sun. I wish I could explain to you how winsome the tree is. There is something about all of the Cupressaceae which makes one want to hug them like a robe wearing lunatic from Northern California.

The second tree was my parents’ first choice of trees to plant and it is beginning to reach stunning maturity. It is a pecan tree and it is starting to produce nuts. You can’t see how large it is, but it probably about 13 or 14 meters (45 plus feet) and it is also growing fast. Sadly I could not capture its size with pictures (I need a giraffe or a basketball player to go stand beside it), but when you are near it, you now get a feeling of awe–in addition to whatever appreciation you have for its graceful lines and lovely proportions. There are larger trees back in the forest, but they are forest oaks, walnuts, and hickory which grow tall and straight and do not spread like the glorious pecan. Pecan trees are capable of growing to 40 meters (130 feet) in height with a spread of 22 meters (75 feet) so we will keep hoping that none of the freakish storms which have been growing in number and strength bedevil either of these beloved trees before they reach that kind of height. I wish you could actually see these trees–they are so beautiful!

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This is the perfect time of year for delicious pecan pies! Unfortunately, if I made such a tasty and expensive confection, I would eat four slices and then the rest would sit sadly in the refrigerator (since my roommate wants to live forever and thus fears Crisco and corn syrup). So I will hoard my precious bag of pecans for Thanksgiving and instead blog about the magnificent pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)–an Apollo among trees, which is as beautiful and large as it is beloved and useful! Pecan trees are members of the Hickory genus, Carya, which is named for an archaic Greek tree-nut goddess (whom I need to blog about another day). While there are a few Hickory species in Mexico, Canada, China, and Indochina, the majority are native to the United States (which probably indicates that the trees originated here and spread elsewhere). Pecan trees are native to the southeastern and southcentral United States and spread down into northern Mexico. The word “pecan” is a borrow word from Algonquian (!) and it means “nut so hard it takes a stone to crack it open” (Algonquian, evidently, is masterful at compressing hunter-gatherer concepts into extreme brevity). Pecans have been planted and used as a food source by Native American peoples for a long, long time so it is hard to tell where exactly the tree originated within its range.

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Rich in proteins and healthy fats and requiring no preparation to eat, pecans are an almost perfect food for humans (in stark opposition to Crisco and corn syrup). Pecans keep fresh within their shells for an entire growing season or longer. The nuts contain protein, sterols, antioxidants, and omega-6 fatty acids. They provide two-to-five times as much food energy as lean meat. Eating a daily handful of pecans lowers “bad” cholesterol levels in a manner similar to statin drugs, and also, “may delay age-related muscle nerve degeneration.” I should probably just eat my bag of pecans and live eternally, but who really wants to be around for the nightmarish robopocalypse (or forgo pie)? Out of convention, I have been calling pecans “nuts”, but the edible part is technically a drupe—a fruit with a single large pit much like a peach or plum. I won’t even mention the rich buttery flavor which is a perfect complement to sweets such as…well, I said I wouldn’t talk about it. Like walnut and hickory (which are close cousins), pecan also makes a magnificent lumber–although it seems a waste to use such a beautiful & useful tree for furniture and cabinetry.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

Unlike most familiar fruit and nut trees, pecan trees get big! A mature tree can grow up to 44 meters in height (144 ft) with an equally wide span. Just imagine a living green sphere the size of a 15 story building. The trees live to more than 300 years of age, so there are pecan trees out there older than our republic (and arguably in better shape)!

A pecan tree growing over George Washington's mansion at Mount Vernon

A pecan tree growing over George Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon

According to my sources, pecans were not domesticated until the 1880s. However, considering how perfect they are for humans, I can’t help wonder if they coevolved with us quite a bit over the last 14,000 years. Or are we more squirrel-like than we wish to admit? At any rate, today the United States accounts for up to 95 percent of the world’s pecan crop which exceeds 200 thousand tons. The crop is harvested in mid to late October (which probably explains why I could even afford my bag of shelled pecans). Pecans are a perfect food, a perfect timber, a perfect tree. I’m not sure if the Algonquians were right to choose such a spare name—perhaps the pecan tree should be named for a goddess after all. Unlike the monstrous Chinese invader, pecan is the true tree of heaven.

PecanGrove

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