The Pecan Tree
Cookies, cobblers, crackers and coffee – these are just a few of the delicacies that feature nuts from our state tree, the pecan. Towering at heights up to 100 feet with trunks measuring up to three feet around, some pecan trees in Texas are more than 150 years old. The Lone Star State is the largest producer of native pecans, and sec- ond only to Georgia in the production of hybrid varieties.
The pecan became the official Texas state tree in 1919. Gov. James Hogg loved the tree so much that he requested that one be planted at his gravesite. Millions of pounds of pecans are harvested every year in San Saba, Texas, which boasts the moniker “Pecan Capital of the World” and whose county reportedly has the largest concentration of pecan orchards in the entire state.
In 1874, Edmund E. Risien, a young English cabinetmaker, stopped in San Saba on his way to California. “His plan was to only stay for a short while,” explains San Saba Director of Economic Development Tony Guidroz, “but thanks to his love of horticulture and a thriving casket-making business, he settled and lived the rest of his life here.” Risien began experimenting with upbreed- ing native pecans, and he is credited with creating several hybrid varieties. His pioneering efforts earned him accolades in 1931 by the 42nd Texas Legislature as a world leader in the pecan industry.
According to information from the Texas State Historical Association, fossil remains found in Texas show that the native pecan tree was here long before humans ever came on the scene. Many American Indians relied on the nuts as an important food staple, gathering wild pecans to create all kinds of culinary combinations — mixing them with fruits and beans, corn and squashes; forming energy drinks with pecan milk; using ground pecan meal to thicken meat stews; and carrying roasted pecans along on long journeys to sustain them when other food was scarce.
Winston Millican, a fifth-generation descendent of Risien, owns and operates Millican Pecan in San Saba, carrying on his family’s legacy. Millican combines his pecan production experience with his wife Kristen’s love for cooking to produce pecan halves and pieces, pecan meal and a variety of other pecan-themed treats.
The pair also teach others about the myriad possibilities for this versatile nut. The Millican Pecan orchards span more than 500 acres, with over 6,000 pecan trees. In 2015, the Millicans produced approximately 25,000 pounds of pecans, and sold and shipped them worldwide.
“My great-great-grandfather founded the West Texas Pecan Nursery at the junction of the San Saba and Colorado Rivers,” says Millican. “The ‘Mother Pecan Tree,’ located in the heart of this orchard, has been used to produce many great pecan varieties. Some of these include the San Saba Improved, Texas Prolific, Onliwon, Squirrel Delight, No. 60 and Western Schley.”
During his era, Riesen’s customer base included Queen Victoria of England, Lord Alfred Tennyson and the cereal company giant C.W. Post. In addition to the Millican producers, you can visit several other pecan operations in San Saba. At Oliver Pecan Co., the third-generation business started by Gordon Lee and Clydene Oliver in 1970 is busy growing, harvesting and processing pecan products. With more than 30,000 pecan trees to harvest from, Oliver Pecan ships worldwide as well.
San Saba Pecan, the second largest pecan sheller in the world, processes and ships millions of pounds of pecans worldwide each year. Pecans are an excellent source of protein and can be substituted for meat, poultry or fish in one’s diet. The nuts can even be used as a substitute for flour for those needing a gluten-free option. While pecan pie is one of the more common crowdpleasers, other favorites include caramel pecan popcorn, white chocolate cranberry pecan cookies and pecan pork tenderloin.
Besides producing the delicious pecan nut, the pecan also provides wood used in agricultural implements, baseball bats, hammer handles, furniture, wall paneling, flooring, carvings and firewood.