Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Kanza story

    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 the early 1990's, I started to encourage the USDA to name and release USDA 55-11-11 as a new pecan cultivar for northern pecan producers.  I even suggested a name--Kanza.
    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. 

     Kanza originated from a hand pollinated cross between Major and Shoshoni made by Louis Romberg in 1955. Louis was the USDA's first pecan breeder hired way back in 1931. The objective in making a cross between a northern cultivar (Major) and a large, thin-shelled cultivar of southern origins (Shoshoni) was to develop a new pecan cultivar with large nut size, thin shell and early ripening. The photo at right shows a Kanza nut and its shuck. When I look at Kanza, I can see characteristics from both parents. Kanza inherited the tear-drop shape, thin shell and excellent shelling ability from its Shoshoni parent. From its Major parent, Kanza inherited scab resistance, a thick firm husk, early ripening, and great kernel flavor.
     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.  

    Kanza is among the best shelling pecans that can be grown. After cracking, Kanza nuts produce over 95% intact kernel halves (if the cracker is set properly). The kernels are golden in color and very attractive (photo at left). Get a customer to taste a Kanza kernel and you'll have them asking for the nut by name from now on.