Now a ubiquitous symbol of the Lone Star State, the pecan tree has played an important part of Texas’s human history for centuries, even before the first European explorer set foot on Texas soil. Native Americans, most notably the Comache, prized the tree’s delicious nut for its high fat content and remarkable storability. Native Americans also utilized the pecan tree for medical purposes. The Comanche were known to make a salve from the leaves of the pecan tree to combat ringworm infections while the Kiowa believed the tree’s bark could help cure tuberculosis.
The first European to roam the vast expanses of Texas, a Spanish explorer named Cabeza de Vaca, likely owes the preservation of his life to the pecan tree. Following a harrowing shipwreck, Cabeza de Vaca was captured by the Karankawa tribe living near present-day Galveston. Diary passages describe his fascination with the pecan, a nutritious nut that offered ample sustenance during his distressing excursion through the Texas wilderness. However, Cabeza de Vaca was not familiar with the pecan since pecan trees are not native to Europe, so he called the nut nueces, the Spanish word for “walnut.”
Eventually, more settlers arrived in Texas, taking advantage of Texas’s seemingly endless supply of pecan trees. Most newcomers to Texas had heard rumbling rumors about the pecan tree; trappers in the 1700s brought pecans with them to the East, making the pecan take on an almost exotic aura. Prominent citizens such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson became trendsetters by planting this peculiar tree on their land. In the eighteenth century, pecans were often referred to as Illinois nuts or Mississippi nuts. Eventually, Americans adopted the name “pecan” for the nut, a word derived from an Algonquin Indian word for a nut that is difficult to crack.
Although many settlers enjoyed the savory meat of the pecan, the abundance of pecan trees proved a hindrance to agricultural endeavors. Planters chopped down entire groves of pecan trees to clear land for cotton production. Wood from the fallen pecan trees was manufactured into tools and wagons or burned as common firewood. This lavish use of the pecan tree would have led to its extinction had it not been for the efforts of concerned Texas, namely former governor James S. Hogg. Thanks to the advocacy of Hogg and his fellow visionaries, new generations of Texans can still enjoy the state’s signature pecan pie.
The pecan tree is currently celebrated as the official tree of Texas, and the pecan itself is perpetually lauded as a regional delicacy. Texas’s love for pecans has spread to its fellow states in the Union. In fact, America loves pecan so much that August 20 is National Chocolate Pecan Pie Day! With a globally growing taste for pecans, the pecan tree’s history is far from completed.