Hickory's nuttiest cousin

Some trees become known for attributes other than their wood. The shapely crown of the American elm, for instance, far exceeds the reputation of its boards. And so it is with the pecan tree (Carya illinoensis).

A cousin of the hickories, the pecan was notable for its sweet nuts long before the coming of white explorers. The Indians of the Lower Mississippi River Valley were so thankful for its nutty bounty that they associated the tree with the Great Spirit.

Spanish explorer and gold seeker Hernando DeSoto discovered the pecan when his party crossed the Mississippi River in 1541. According to his chronicles, the Spaniards relished the nuts from the trees because of their comparatively thin shells. But DeSoto wasn't a horticulturist, and failed to bring back samples.

The American trappers and traders of later centuries were more enterprising. From their excursions in the new frontier west of the Allegheny Mountains, they returned with furs to sell and pecan nuts to share. Thomas Jefferson heard of these "Mississippi nuts" and got some to plant at Monticello. He also gave some to his agriculturist friend, George Washington, who set them in a row at Mount Vernon.

That began the extensive propagation in the United States of the pecan as a nut tree. Today, the cultured varieties of the species occupy orchards from Georgia to California and Oregon.

And what of the wood? The hard, strong, close-grained stock is valued for veneer and chairs. But throughout the South, it's the pecan nut of praline fame that draws the most applause.

Illustration: Jim Stevenson