Pecan trees grow mainly in the south-central and southeastern United States—in fact, Texas chose the pecan tree as its official state tree back in 1919, and pecans are featured in virtually every tourist stop in parts of Georgia.
Although pecans are fairly expensive nuts, they're easy to harvest yourself for free if you have access to woods where pecan trees are growing.
Pecans are typically harvested mid-October through November, and these tasty nuts make a great addition to muffins, cookies, pies, and other baked goods. Head outdoors and take advantage of one of fall's best freebies.
Where to Find Pecans
To find wild pecans, you'll need to familiarize yourself with what a pecan tree looks like.
Pecan trees are actually in the hickory family. They grow wild in the Midwest, the Southeast, and in the South-Central states of Texas and Oklahoma.
They are very large trees, growing up to an average of 120 to 130 feet tall, and can exceed 150 feet under the right conditions. The leaves are almost frond-like, with smaller, pointy leaflets of about four to seven inches growing symmetrically on a stem that's up to around 18 to 20 inches long.
Most importantly, if you've found a pecan tree and it's harvest time, you're likely to find pecans on the ground or to spot them among the leaves of the tree. All varieties of pecans are edible, so you don't need to worry about which kind of pecan you've found.
Pecan nuts on the tree are contained in their shells in an outer husk or hull. This hull is green, and you'll see hulls in clusters among the tree's branches.
How to Forage for Pecans
You'll need to bring along buckets to carry your nuts, plus a nutcracker (if you want to try some while you're gathering). Here's what to do:
- Check for ripeness. Pecans are ready for harvest when the green hulls split open on the tree, dropping the nuts in their shells to the ground. So when you find pecans on the ground, it's time to gather them (or the squirrels will beat you to it).
- Gather the pecans. Once ready, you can harvest the pecans one of two ways: Either collect them off the ground as they fall or shake the tree to dislodge them.
- Inspect the quality of the nuts. Look the pecans over and discard any with wormholes or other signs of damage.
- Dry the nuts. Allow the nuts to air dry for two weeks in their shells.
- Test for dryness. Remove several nuts from the shell and try to break them in half. If they break cleanly, the nuts are dry and ready for use.
- For maximum freshness, always store pecans in an air-tight container.
- Pecans will keep in the shell for several months. Store them in a cool, dry place for the best results.
- Shelled pecans can be kept in the refrigerator for up to six months and in the freezer for well over a year.