Thursday, January 9, 2014

Stories behind a few pecan cultivars

    I think every pecan grower dreams about finding a new pecan cultivar,  preferably a tree that grows from a seed he planted. Many of the northern pecan cultivars propagated today are either selections from native pecan groves or chance seedlings planted by a pecan enthusiast.  Today, I'd like to share with you a couple of stories behind three pecan cultivars.
    I met Ed Yates back in 1988 at his farm in Southern Indiana outside the small town of Chrisney. After driving through miles and miles of Indiana corn and bean fields, I came to Ed's farm and found neat rows of mature pecan trees growing on the rolling landscape. The first thing I noticed was a dead crow hung from a low lying tree branch. Ed quickly informed me that he was at war with the pesky varmints. He claimed that tying dead crows up in the trees helped to deter other crows from stealing his pecans. Ed had a nice orchard populated with the more popular northern cultivars of the 1970's; Major, Posey, Giles, and Greenriver. During our visit, he did not share with me the fact that he had planted dozens of seeds from his grafted trees in the hopes of discovering the next great pecan cultivar. It wasn't until after Ed had passed away that I found out members of the Kentucky Nut Growers Association had started to propagate several of Ed's seedlings. Today, we are evaluating Yates 68 and Yates 137 at the Pecan Experiment Field.

   When I look at these two cultivars from Ed Yates, both nuts have a distinctive "Posey" look to the size and shape. Both nuts high percent kernel with Yates 68 producing over 55% kernel and Yates 137  over 60% kernel. The kernel color and quality of Yates 68 looks to be excellent, reminding me of Major or Greenriver kernels. In sharp contrast, Yates 137 has the dark kernel color we usually associate with Posey. Dark kernel color is a major problem for a pecan cultivar because  marketing a nut that appears to be rancid is extremely difficult. 
   I first met Bill Totten at a Northern Nut Growers Meeting back in 1983. Bill was an active member of a team of Illinois pecan enthusiasts searching the Upper Mississippi River bottoms for great, early-ripening northern pecans. About ten years ago he sent me a sample of a nut from a seedling tree he had growing near his home in Alexis, IL. He called the nut "Hark", and I was very impressed by the kernel quality and high percent kernel (>56%). He sent me some scions later that spring and we grafted "Hark" at the Experiment Field for advanced testing.
   I asked Bill about the history of Hark and all he could remember is that he had collected the seed nut from an orchard of pecan trees growing near Moberly, MO.  Is it a seedling of an established northern pecan cultivar? Yes, most likely, but which northern cultivar is hard to guess by looking at the nut. 
   It takes 13 to 20 years for a seedling pecan tree to bear nuts. Planting seeds in the hopes of finding a superior pecan cultivar is a fun but not very profitable venture. The vast majority of seedling trees will produce nuts inferior to the seed parent. However, we are fortunate to have a few dreamers like Ed and Bill that attempt to beat the odds.