The pecan (pronounced /pɨˈkɑːn/, /pɨˈkæn/, or /ˈpiːkæn/), Carya illinoinensis or illinoensis, is a species of hickory, native to south-central North America, in Mexico from Coahuila south to Jalisco and Veracruz, in the United Statesfrom southern Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana east to western Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and western Tennessee, south through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Florida, and west into New Mexico.
“Pecan” is from an Algonquian word, meaning a nut requiring a stone to crack. It is pronounced in various parts of the US as pi-KAHN, pi-KAN, PEE-kahn, or PEE-kan. In Mexico, pecans and walnuts share the same Spanish name,nuez, which is a cognate of the English word nut.
The pecan tree is a large deciduous tree, growing to 20–40 m (66–130 ft) in height, rarely to 44 m (144 ft); taller trees to 50–55 m (160–180 ft) have been claimed but not verified. It typically has a spread of 12–23 m (39–75 ft) with a trunk up to 2 m (6.6 ft) diameter. A 10-year-old sapling will stand about 5 m (16 ft) tall. The leaves are alternate, 30–45 cm (12–18 in) long, and pinnate with 9–17 leaflets, each leaflet 5–12 cm (2.0–4.7 in) long and 2–6 cm (0.79–2.4 in) broad. The flowers are wind-pollinated, and monoecious, with staminate and pistillate catkins on the same tree; the male catkins are pendulous, up to 18 cm (7.1 in) long; the female catkins are small, with three to six flowers clustered together.
The fruit is an oval to oblong nut, 2.6–6 cm (1.0–2.4 in) long and 1.5–3 cm (0.59–1.2 in) broad. The nut itself is dark brown with a rough husk 3–4 mm (0.12–0.16 in) thick that starts out green and turns brown at maturity, at which time it splits off in four sections to release the thin-shelled nut. Pecans, like the fruit of all other members of the hickory genus, are not true nuts but technically a drupe (fruit with a single stone or pit). The husks are produced from the exocarp tissue of the flower while the part known as the nut develops from the endocarp.
The nuts of the pecan are edible, with a rich, buttery flavor. They can be eaten fresh or used in cooking, particularly in sweet desserts but also in some savory dishes. One of the most common desserts with the pecan as a central ingredient is the pecan pie, a traditional southern U.S. recipe. Pecans are also a major ingredient in praline candy, most often associated with New Orleans.
In addition to the pecan nut, the wood is also used in making furniture, in wood flooring, as well as flavoring fuel for smoking meats.
Pecans were one of the most recently domesticated major crops. Although wild pecans were well-known among the colonial Americans as a delicacy, the commercial growing of pecans in the United States did not begin until the 1880s. Today, the U.S. produces between 80% and 95% of the world’s pecans, with an annual crop of 150–200 thousand tons. The nut harvest for growers is typically around mid-October. Historically, the leading pecan-producing state in the U.S. has been Georgia, followed by Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma; they are also grown in Arizona, South Carolina and Hawaii. Outside the United States, pecans are grown in Australia, Brazil, China, Israel, Mexico,Peru and South Africa. They can be grown approximately from USDA hardiness zones 5 to 9, provided summers are also hot and humid.
Pecan trees may live and bear edible nuts for more than three hundred years. They are mostly self-incompatible, because most cultivars, being clones derived from wild trees, show incomplete dichogamy. Generally, two or more trees of different cultivars must be present to pollinate each other.