There are over 1,000 varieties of pecans; but how many are “the best”? In Texas, there are only a very few: ‘Western’, ‘Desirable’, ‘Pawnee’, maybe ‘Caddo’, ‘Sioux’ and ‘Kanza’. In 2011, I wrote an article on the varieties THAT have potential, so we will not go there here.
This winter, we face the hard task of having to decide which old varieties to keep in the Texas A&M orchard and which varieties need to be top-worked or cut out. In 2 years we will be planting trees and will have to decide on which varieties to plant. Our non-grafted seedling trees that never bear enough or bear too much with low quality should be top-worked or taken out.
In looking back at the best varieties of the past we have ‘John Garner’, which was the number one grafted variety in Texas for many years and from time to time it will look good in a pecan show, but it should not be retained because it does not bear. Then the leading variety to follow was ‘Success’ and it was great for 30 or more years.
‘Success’ began to have late-summer nut-drop problems in the 1960s. I can remember big trees at the Bastrop orchard with 100 pounds per tree have the entire crop drop to the ground in August. Not all ‘Success’ trees had the problem, thus one has to go tree by tree. The USDA realized ‘Success’ had problems and stopped using it as a parent in their breeding program. The plant pathology department at Texas A&M received a giant federal grant to find the cause of the ‘Success’ fruit drop, but after 5 years, no answer could be found. ‘Success’ is not good today.
‘Mahan’ with its large nut size has always had great eye appeal, but poor kernel filling and over-cropping is bad. However, nurseries continued to sell trees because the nuts are big and it does bear. ‘Mahan’ should not be planted or grafted today. ‘Stuart’ has got to go in our orchard, our 60+ year old trees bear a big crop every 3 years and the quality is okay, but the market price is not good.
‘Burkett’ was a major variety in Texas for 50+ years and it did well in the arid West and the kernel taste is unique and excellent. However, ‘Burkett’ is highly susceptible to scab disease and old trees do not bear well. Old ‘Burkett’ orchards in the West simply do not bear the way they did when they were young. All of the O.S. Gray varieties have trouble bearing; GraCross, GraKing, GraBohls, ‘GraPark Giant’, and ‘GraZona’ do not bear as in the past. ‘GraTex’ does bear but sprouts very bad when over cropped and the dorsal groove traps cork. No Gray varieties should be planted and existing trees should be considered for removal.
There are varieties that, as mature trees, fail to bear every year or have poor quality. Individual trees of these can be great and need to be retained, but taking care of poor producers is not profitable. This list is very long, but can include ‘Barton’, ‘Cape Fear’, ‘Cherokee’, ‘Comanche’, ‘Imperial’, ‘Melrose’, ‘Mohawk’, ‘Moneymaker’, ‘Moore’, ‘Odom’, ‘Podsednik’, ‘Riverside’, ‘San Saba Improved’, ‘Shawnee’, ‘Shoshoni’, ‘Sumner’, ‘Tejas’, ‘Texas Prolific’ and ‘Van Deman’. ‘Mohawk’ and ‘Shoshoni’ do great from year 8 to 12; but they slow down and fail to bear quality fruit when fully mature trees. ‘Podsednik’, being the largest pecan, might be one of which a grower would keep one tree just for fun. There are some old super high quality varieties such as ‘Forkert’, ‘Brake’, ‘Schley’, ‘GraTex’ and ‘Vogt’ that can be retained for pecan shows and family use.
There are a number of popular, highly planted varieties that have been out for less than 50 years, which have management issues. What about ‘Wichita’, ‘Kiowa’ and ‘Cheyenne’ — they are great in Central Texas where water, soil and good management are available; otherwise, scab, over cropping, freeze and other problems make them difficult to like. These 3 varieties just mentioned are what Dr. Larry Stein calls “intensive demand varieties”. They bear, they can have great quality, but they must have perfect everything. These 3 varieties must have deep well-drained soil, maximum irrigation that is salt free, good space management, good weed control, and correct fertilization.
What about ‘Choctaw’? It is the best inshell variety in the world with good soil, water and management; otherwise, it alternate bears with poor quality. Also, ‘Choctaw’ has major aphid problems just like ‘Cheyenne’.
Pecan variety selection at planting and as orchards begin to age is a major challenge for commercial pecan producers. Every orchard and variety needs to be evaluated on its own merits. It is hard to take out trees that look okay; but if they fail to bear quality pecans, something needs to be corrected and the answer is not soil or water. When we have to live and deal with bad varieties, we begin to realize how growers become fixed on a very few varieties and consider all others as no. I am not saying plant only ‘Western’ in the West; but the list is very short there, and everywhere else pecans are grown. I feel ‘Pawnee’ may become the most important variety of the future. Only time will tell who is for real.