Pecan trees are native to the southern portion of the United States, and they have a very rich history attached to them. They are a type of hickory tree, and there are hundreds of different types of pecans that produce pecans. But, what does a pecan tree look like?
The Native Americans were the first to have pecans, and this makes them a North American heritage nut. Pecan actually originates from the algonquin work “Pacane” that means the nuts require a stone to crack them open. Several years later, after the Civil War, small pecan farming operations started showing up throughout Georgia, and they were marketed as being a buttery, sweet nut.
Today, the United States is the biggest pecan producer in the world. Coming from humble beginnings, the pecan industry has exploded. Today, pecans are one of the biggest cash crops Georgia has, and it’s been the top-producing state since the 1800s. Sunnyland Farms in Albany, Georgia, has more than 600,000 pecan trees, and they are the self-proclaimed pecan capital of the United States.
Pecans are very large and stately trees, so they’re not a great choice to have in your backyard as a shade tree due to the sheer size.
A Brief Background on Pecan Trees
Pecans fall into the walnut or Juglandaceae family. This tree will produce light brown nuts that you call pecans, and it has a very majestic appearance that has earned it the title as Texas’s state tree. It can aid with weight loss, heart problems, skin issues, has anti-aging benefits, boosts your immunity, and more.
These benefits resulted in the pecan growing in popularity, and it’s still one of the most sought-after commercial nuts on the market. Many will have to pay huge prices to buy them, but for the people who are fortunate enough to live where they can pick them, price isn’t an issue.
What Does a Pecan Tree Look Like?
So, what does a pecan tree look like? Identifying this tree can be a daunting challenge if you’re not sure what to look for. There are several characteristics it shares with other trees. To make it easier on your to figure out what does a pecan tree look like, here are a few pointers to keep in mind:
Bark and Trunk
The tree trunk on this particular species is very straight, thick, and tall. The bark has a reddish-brown to light brown color to it, and it usually gets scalier and flatter as it grows and the tree matures.
Pecan trees are monoecious. This term means that it has both female and male reproductive organs on different flowers on the same tree. The male flowers will dangle from the branches in clusters of five or size, and these clusters are called catkins. Below the catkins, you’ll see the female flowers. They’re open and cup-shaped, and ready to catch any pollen.
In ideal conditions, pecan trees will grow roughly one to two feet a year. However, they require a minimum of 10 years to mature before they start producing nuts.
Pecan trees are more likely to thrive if you plant them in warm climates. Places where this tree thrives and it’s not hard to figure out what does a pecan tree look like include areas from Texas to the Atlantic Ocean. Due to the huge size of the tree, you won’t be able to have it in your backyard. Instead, you’ll find it in commercial woods, orchards, or in estate-sized plots.
As this tree is part of the hickory family, it is actually the largest specimen in this family. At full maturity, your tre can easily get between 70 and 100 feet tall. On record, one pecan tree reached 150 feet tall. They usually produce a very dense canopy that spreads between 40 and 75 feet wide.
Pecan Tree Identification: Leaves
If you’re wondering, “what does a pecan tree look like?” you want to take a look at the leaves first. However, pecan trees produce leaves that are very similar to other types of leaves, especially other trees in the hickory family. However, there are a few small clues to help you tell pecan trees from other ones. You should only attempt to identify the tree once it hits two years old or older.
You want to wait until the tree is at least two years old because, when the tree is younger, it produces a few leaves that you can’t classify easily. As it ages, the leaves will elongate and have several leaflets to give it the look of fern leaves. Leaves should be between 12 and 20 inches long. For any pecan tree older than two years, the leaves are unlikely to be over 20 inches long or shorter than 12 inches.
Check the Color
The leaves on your pecan tree are usually darker green on the upper side and have a paler green coloring on the underside. In the fall months, the leaves fade to a showy yellow shade, and this is a vital clue to help you figure out what does a pecan tree look like.
Smell the Leaves
Pecan leaves have a very unique scent to them. To check for it, all you have to do is crush a few of the leaves and sniff them right away. If they have a very strong aromatic scent, it’s a good indication you have a pecan tree.
Look and see how the leaves sit on the stem of the tree. Some leaves will sit right across from one another on the stem. However, your pecan leaflets should alternate how they sit on the stem.
Count the Leaflets
Pecan trees produce compound, pinnate leaves. This means that it comes with several smaller leaves of leaflets on a stem to make a full leaf. Pick several leaves and count the number of leaflets you see per stem. A young pecan tree will have a very simple design with very few leaflets. Older trees will have 9 to 13 leaflets per stem, and you may find leaves that have up to 17 leaflets in some cases.
The typical pecan leaflets are lance-shaped and small. They should be from four to eight inches long, and it’s very common for them to curve to look a little like a falcon’s beak. They will have sharp edges with rows of tooth-like projections along the margins. The new, smaller leaflets should have soft, tiny hairs covering them that they shed as the tree matures.
The leaves are the biggest way to figure out what does a pecan tree look like after they hit two years old.
Pecan Tree Identification: Nut
When you’re figuring out what does a pecan tree look like, the nuts are a very big giveaway for mature trees. To identify them correctly, you should look at:
- Color – Pecan nuts are a lighter brown color with dark stripes. When they’re europe, they grow in elongated, oval shucks. These husks or shucks stay shut while the nut continues to grow. Once they mature, the shucks will turn brown and crack open to reveal the ripe pecan inside. When they fall on wet ground, the seed coat will darken and the nut will eventually go stale.
- Ripening Method – Pecans tend to ripen in clusters of 3 to 11. This sets them apart from other nuts that fall into the hickory family as they ripen by themselves or in pairs.
- Ripening Time – Pecans typically ripen in the autumn months. How late in the season this happens depends on which zone they’re in. In zones six to nine, they mature at different rates, but in zone five, they rarely produce nuts. So, you have to figure out which zone you’re in to guess when your pecan tree will ripen.
- Shape – Pecans tend to have an elliptical or oval shape to them. They grow in husks or shucks that crack open once the seeds are fully mature.
- Size – On average, a fully mature pecan tree nut is roughly 1 ½ to 2 inches long when you harvest it.
Now that you can answer the question, “What does a pecan tree look like?” Here are a few tips to help you harvest the nuts when you find them. Remember, the harvesting process is a relatively easy one that shouldn’t cause you a lot of trouble.
Pecans are ready to harvest when the husks turn from their green color to brown and start to crack open. Usually, the nuts will naturally fall to the ground. You can also encourage them to fall by shaking any branches you can reach or rustling them with a pole. This is great if you dislike heights but want to get your hands on some pecans.
Once the pecans fall to the ground, you want to harvest them as quickly as you can. Ants, birds, and other rodents love these nuts, so you may lose them all if you don’t get out there and scoop them up quickly. If they stay on the ground too long, especially in wet conditions, they can also develop rot or mold.
Caring for Pecans After Harvest
You need to dry and cure pecans before you can store them. To dry them, spread a thin layer out on a plastic sheet and put them in an area that has excellent air circulation and low lighting. If you need them to dry out quicker, stir them continuously and aim a fan across them.
Your pecans should take from 2 to 10 days to dry out. Once they do, the kernels will become brittle and pull apart easily from the exterior. Store the dry nuts in your freezer or refrigerator to extend how long they last. You can store whole kernels at 32°F for two or more years, and shelled pecans can stay for a year at the same temperature. To keep them longer, freeze your shelled pecans at 1°F and keep them frozen.
Pecans are a very buttery, salty nut that goes well with a huge range of dishes, and they’re popular to mix in desserts.
Facts About Pecan Trees
The pecan tree is loaded with cultural and historical significance, and this is why the pecan tree is Texas’s state tree and the nut is the state nut. A few fun facts surrounding this tree include:
- The pecan is the only big tree nut that is native to the United States, and we currently produce 80% of the world’s pecans.
- There are currently over 1,000 varieties of pecan nuts, and they come in a range of sizes.
- Pecan comes from a Native American word that was used to describe a nut that required a stone to crack it open.
- Pecan trees will mature at roughly 12 years old, and they can easily live for 200 to 300 years while producing nuts in ideal conditions.
- Native pecan trees that are over 150 years old and any non-grafted seedlings usually don’t produce pecans until they’re 10 to 15 years old.
- Pecan trees normally get between 70 and 100 feet tall, but some trees can hit 150 feet high and taller.
- Technically speaking, pecans aren’t nuts. Instead, they’re drupes, and these are fruits that are surrounded by a husk with a stone pit like a plum or peach.
- A grafted pecan tree can take between 5 and 10 years to start producing pecans, depending on the cultivar.
- Butter pecan ice cream was invented in Texas.
- In 1919, the pecan tree became the state tree of Texas. The Texas Governor at the time, James Hogg, liked pecans so much that he asked to have a pecan tree planted by his grave.
Pecan Tree Growth Stages
Pecan trees are native to the southern portion of the United States, so it makes sense that they thrive in hotter climates. Pecans offer a very buttery flavor that pairs well with many foods, especially desserts. A single tree can give you enough nuts for a large family to eat. A mature pecan tree has a canopy that can spread out and get up to 150 feet tall to provide you a nice amount of shade. The trees take up to 25 years to mature, and they go through the following growth stages:
Once they germinate, the seed will send out one or more roots to find water in the soil. After they root in the earth, the stem will push out of the casing and start growing toward the light. In a few short weeks, the casign will split from the stem and fall off. The seed is now a seedling, and it’ll develop small leaves. The budding pecan tree will expand and grow during the next few years while forming more leaves.
The juvenile stage of pecan tree growth is all about increasing the seedling’s height and size. The sapling will develop whip-like shoots with tighter angles like most young plants. During the spring months, the pecan leaves and shoots take on a reddish hue. The small plant has a very distinct hairiness to it, especially on the main veins, midrib, and lower surface. In the first season, the leaves are very simple without any leaflets. There is a rapid growth period that spans 10 to 12 years, and the vegetative growth on the tree is very rapid for 5 to 10 years before it slows down for bud production.
The first flowers usually form on the peripheral and upper zones of the tree, and it’s common to see them on branches with the correct thickness and length as they have decent food reserves. Since the pecan tree is monoecious, it produces separate female and male flowers on one tree. The female flowers are at the tip of the newest growth for the season, and they’ll form nuts if they get fertilized. The male flowers (catkins) are near the base. Pecans are wind-pollinated, and the pollen can travel a decent distance. However, they do require another tree for pollination because the female flowers are usually dormant while the male plants release the pollen.
It’ll take roughly 90 days for the nuts to reach their full size. The female flower’s outermost layer will keep developing along with the expanding nut capacity until it matures and fully envelopes it. Pecans usually grow in groups of two to six, and the nuts spend the first half of their lifecycle developing physically while the second half is dedicated to packing the kernel inside the ovary wall or shell. When the outer shuck or hull splits apart, it’s considered to be mature.
Pecan trees reach maturity and star t to produce seeds at around 12 years old. Some of the trees can live for up to 300 years in the right conditions. As mature plants, they will produce hundreds of seeds that wind, animals, and water spread out. During the autumn months, the pecans fall to the ground and they can stay dormant during the winter. In the spring, these nuts will germinate and start growing a new tree.
There are several growth stages your pecan tree will go through, and it takes over a decade to get through them and mature.
Common Growing Problems
If you damaged the root system of your pecan tree when you first planted it, the young tree can have issues getting nutrients. Broken roots can cause improper moisture uptake, and this will cause your tree to wilt. One way to ensure that your pecan tree is getting the right amount of nutrients is to do a leaf analysis. Taking leaf samples spaced apart over time will help you figure out if there are any nutrient deficiencies, and you can take your samples to your local government agricultural extension office to check.
If you plant your pecan tree in a space where it doesn’t get a lot of sun or the moisture won’t drain out correctly, it could lead to several issues. Fungal infection attacks go up in these conditions.
Pecan scab is a very big problem with pecan trees, and it’s a fungal disease that looks like rot that spreads along the pecan drupes. It can quickly defoliate the tree and make the pecans much smaller than they would normally be. There is no way to get rid of this disease, but you can manage it. There are many cultivars that are bred specifically to be more resistant to this disease, including Gafford, Amling, and Syrup Mill. You should also keep your orchard free of debris to help prevent it from taking hold.
Birds like crows and ravens and squirrels will eat the fallen pecans before you can get to them once in a while, and squirrels can do a huge amount of damage to this tree in a very short period. With an established tree, this isn’t a huge problem, and the worst-case scenario is you won’t have a lot of pecans until you get a better season. You can keep them away by hanging moth balls in mesh bags on the branches, and there are also electronic sonic deterrents available too.
Weevils are another issue for pecan production. They’ll burrow into the nutshell and eat the flesh of the nut. You can help with them by applying beneficial nematodes to the base of the tree to stop them in their larval stage and preventing them from maturing to the point they eat the pecans. Apply your nematodes between September and December while the larvae are overwintering. You can also apply fungal pesticides to the base of the tree once a week.
Finally, yellow aphids will feed on pecan leaf sap and tree matter. They spread a yellow film around your pecan orchards. You’ll first notice it early in the spring months when the aphids are most active for the season. You can introduce parasitic wasps and ladybugs to the area to eat them. You can also plant cover crops like hairy vetch or alfalfa to deter them. Horticultural oils, insecticidal soaps, and neem oil all work to kill them. Another issue is root-knot nematodes, and they can cause knotting or galls on the tree roots. You can treat them using nematodes.
So, what does a pecan tree look like? Now you know, and we gave you several ways to identify them at a glance. You can take this guide and use it to spot pecan trees growing in the warmer, southern portions of the United States and look for the tasty pecans in the fall months.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.