Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The origins and history of Major pecan

   One of my bad habits is collecting old and rare books about fruit and nut tree growing. The other day, I picked up my copy of the 1912 Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture and discovered a lithograph of new and noteworthy pecan cultivars (photo at right). At the top of the page is an illustration of the Major pecan, a cultivar well known to northern pecan growers. The early history of the Major pecan is described in the text as follows.

   "The parent tree of the Major pecan is located in a native pecan forest near the mouth of the Green river, Henderson County, Ky. It is owned by Mrs. Laurie M. B. Major, of Henderson, in honor of whose late husband it was named. It appears to have attracted considerable local attention previous to 1907, when Mr. C.G. Taylor, of Princeton Ind., sent specimens of the nuts to Mr. W.N. Roper, of Petersburg, Va. The evident merits of the nuts and the account of the tree so favorably impressed Mr. Roper and his partner, Mr. E. Gill Hinton, that the latter went to the original tree during the summer of 1908 for the purpose of obtaining scions, and from the scions then obtained the first nursery-grown trees of the variety were propagated.
    The actual bearing record of this tree has not been kept, but it is stated by persons in the locality of it origin that during recent years it has borne regularly and that frequently the crops have been approximately 100 pounds.  It is a healthy tree 2 1/2 feet in diameter at breast height and 59 feet to the first branch."

Major nuts grown in S.E. Kansas. 2013
    After finding the above report on the Major pecan, I looked to my old copies of the Annual Report of the Northern Nut Growers Association to find additional descriptions of the original Major tree. W.C. Reed, of Vincennes IN, wrote the following in 1915.

     "Major. Crop 1912, 160 pounds saved, and from what information I can get this tree usually bears 100 pounds or more; tree about 3 feet in diameter, 120 feet high and 60 feet to first limb. Owing to its height and size it is very hard to get much an estimate in regard to the crop it may carry until it is gathered. Being located in the dense forest a large part of the crop is often carried off."

    Sadly, the original Major tree was cut down many years ago but the cultivar lives on today and has served as a parent for two important modern-day pecans--Kanza and Lakota.  One of the most vocal proponents of the Major during the mid-1900's was Indiana nurseryman, J. Ford Wilkerson. Mr. Wilkerson was an active member of the Northern Nut Growers Association and attended his first NNGA meeting in 1914. Mr. Wilkerson began cutting scions from old trees including the original Major tree in 1910. To celebrate 50 years of cutting pecan scions, he climbed to the top of a large Major tree that he had planted in 1913. J. Ford Wilkerson was 80 years old when this photo was snapped in 1961 (photo at right). An impressive feat, to say the least.