Back in 1969, Dr. G. D. Madden, the USDA's pecan breeder at the time, sent a package of scions from several pecan selections to the Pecan Experiment Field for testing under northern growing conditions. Among those scions was a clone labeled USDA 55-11-11. Back in those days, the staff at the Pecan Field grafted all new cultivars received for trial onto small native pecan trees that grew within areas of larger native trees. As it turns out, only one USDA 55-11-11 tree was successfully produced from that spring's grafting efforts and has now grown into a large tree (photo at right).
When I first arrived at the Pecan Experiment Field in 1981, our 55-11-11 tree was already bearing regular crops of nuts. During the early 1980's, KNGA member, pecan enthusiast, and parish priest, Tony Blaufus made an annual trip to the Pecan Field to look over our cultivar collections. Tony had started a small grove of trees on his family's farm near Westphalia, KS and was interested propagating the best available pecan cultivars he could find. It was Tony that first pointed out to me how well nuts from the 55-11-11 tree shelled out and how wonderful the straw-colored kernels tasted. That's when I decided to remove a couple of nearby native trees to give our lone 55-11-11 some more room to grow. I also started to graft additional USDA 55-11-11 trees into formal cultivar trials.
In 1996, Kanza was released and has since become one of the most popular nuts being propagated in northern pecan states. And what has happened to that single tree grafted back in 1969? It is still standing and has grown to 25.1 inches in diameter (Photo at left).
I have been fortunate to be able to watch a single Kanza tree grow from a young productive nut producer into a fully mature tree that reliably yields outstanding-quality pecans year after year after year. In the past, we've made cultivar choices based on the performance of young trees only to be disappointed by those same cultivars as trees mature. Too many times, I've seen cultivars that produced outstanding nuts on productive young trees only to mature into old trees with severe alternate bearing, poor quality kernels and susceptibility to winter cold damage. With Kanza, I've been able to watch this cultivar long enough (35 years) to know I won't be faced with future disappointments.
In the 1960's, many pecan "experts" judged USDA 55-11-11 not worthy of propagation. The nut produced was deemed too small for modern commercial orchards that only had room for cultivars that produced mammoth sized nuts. At that time in our history, it didn't seem to matter if those big pecan produced kernels that tasted like cardboard. But times change, and consumers are becoming more concerned with kernel quality and flavor rather than just a big shell.