Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A historical perspective

     One of my hobbies has been collecting antique books--not just any books but books about nut growing. Within the pages of "The Nut Culturist", published in 1896, is a line drawing of a shellbark hickory labeled Hale's papershell hickory (photo at right). The author of this book, Andrew S. Fuller, describes the tree as being unique among the shellbark hickories in having a shell almost as thin as a pecan. In 1894, Mr. Fuller described the tree as being being over 75 feet tall and nearly 2 feet in diameter. He estimated the tree to be at least 100 years old.
    The Hale's hickory was discovered during a time in our history when grafting nut trees was deemed nearly impossible. Standard fruit-tree grafting methods had been tried with little or no success. Outside the report in Mr. Fuller's book, all trace this historic hickory tree has disappeared. Most likely the tree was cut down long ago and turned into axe handles.
     But I've always been fascinated by this story of a outstanding hickory tree lost to history. You see, the Hale's hickory tree was located near the Saddle River in Ridgewood, NJ. I grew up is this area and spent hours of my childhood exploring the banks of the Saddle River. We looked for anything that would float, launching it into the rushing water and watching it swirl down stream. We found plenty of sticks and acorns in the wooded areas along the river but I never remember finding any baseball-sized shellbark hickory nuts. By the mid 1960's, had all the hickories disappeared from the Saddle River floodplain?
    In the 1890's, Ridgewood, NJ was a farming community producing fruit, vegetables, and dairy for nearby New York City. Hickory, walnut, and oak were valuable native trees producing both nuts and outstanding hardwood (white oak acorns were used for hog feed).  Today, Ridgewood is wall to wall Mc-Mansions built for the executives of major corporations. The native timber was cleared long ago and replaced with trees that won't litter manicured lawns with large nuts. The corporate executive has no need for a good piece of hickory wood.

The original Chetopa pecan tree (KS112)
 In 1954, Franks Brewster purchased an eighty acre tract of land in the Neosho River floodplain near Chetopa, KS. At that time, the land supported a combination of native pecan trees and native grass hayfields. Upon purchasing the land Mr. Brewster set about numbering each native pecan tree on the farm so he could record nut production information on each tree. Within his native pecan grove, he found a small tree (6 inches in diameter) and labeled that tree #112.  By 1956, he noted in his farm records that the 112 tree bore unusually large nuts for a native tree.
     In 1962, Frank Brewster donated his pecan farm to Kansas State University for the express purpose of developing a pecan research facility. The Pecan Experiment Field we know today, originated from this donation.
    I arrived in Kansas in 1981. By that time, the 112 tree had grown to 17 inches in diameter and was proving to be a reliable producer of quality nuts. Today, the original tree is 28 inches in diameter and still producing nuts annually. 
   In 1983, we decided to graft a new block of pecan trees using scions from the 112 tree  and scions from Giles (Giles originated from a native tree 1.5 miles from the Experiment Field). Early results from this trial were promising--so promising that we decided to give the 112 tree a proper cultivar name. We called the tree Chetopa, after the Osage Indian Chief that lent his name to the nearby town.
    We've watched this block of Chetopa and Giles trees grow and produce nut crops for 33 years. We've learned that Chetopa may be an outstanding native pecan, but like most pecan cultivars it has some negative attributes. Chetopa is susceptible to scab, although not as susceptible as Giles. Chetopa trees are prone to limb breakage in wind and ice storms. And finally, inner-shell packing material is often trapped in the dorsal groves of Chetopa kernels. On my own farm, I have not grafted any Chetopa trees because I'm concentrating on grafting only scab resistant cultivars with outstanding shelling characteristics.
   Given the history of Hale's Hickory, it makes me wonder if Chetopa will disappear in 100 years time. Will anyone remember the story of its discovery, how it got its name, or why it lost favor with pecan growers? I hope so.