By Matthew R. March, MNRD
Polk County Extension Agent
The pecan tree may be the most famous member of the walnut family in Texas. Not only can the native pecan be found in riparian areas throughout the eastern two-thirds of the state, but improved varieties have also been planted in orchards from El Paso to Beaumont. The pecan is known for its tasty nut that is enjoyed by both humans and wildlife. However, did you know that pecan is one of 11 species of trees belonging to the walnut family that are native to Texas. While all 11 species produce a nut, many of the other species’ nuts are not considered table quality, like pecans, to humans, but are still important forage source for wildlife.
The walnut family, scientifically classified as Juglandaceae is divided into two groups in Texas. The first is Juglans which includes three species of walnuts. The second is Carya which includes eight species of hickorys including pecan.
The three species of walnut found in Texas are Arizona black, and Texas. Black walnut is the only species found in East Texas in deep soils along bottomlands. The tree is usually found growing individually and is a very attractive tree. The walnut is edible but takes a lot of effort to crack the tough shell. Texas walnut is a small tree only growing to 30 feet in height and has narrow leaves. It is found in the western half of the state. Arizona walnut can be found in the arid climates of western Texas and only bears a walnut crop every two to three years.
All eight species of hickorys, including the famous pecan, can be found growing in the forests of East Texas. Nutmeg hickory is rare and is only found in small widely scattered stands. The tree produces nuts that resemble nutmeg. The wood is considered inferior. Black hickory is a tree of dry uplands and can be found growing with other hardy upland trees like post oak. The tree is extremely slow growing. Bitternut hickory is known for its bitter nuts that are even avoided by squirrels except when food sources are lean. The tree is fast growing and resprouts from stumps, but its wood is considered inferior. Mockernut hickory wood is valuable for making tool handles, firewood, and for barbecue wood. This is the most common hickory in East Texas and can live for over 500 years. Shagbark hickory nuts are known for being sweet tasting and are preferred by wildlife. The nut was also important to Native Americans and settlers. Though widespread across eastern North America, it is found in only isolated locations in East Texas. The wood is considered valuable though growth is slow. Pignut hickory can be found scattered across East Texas. The tree gets its name for the fact that the bitter nut is preferred only by pigs. Pignut hickory is also known as broom hickory as the wood was used to make brooms. Water hickory is a swamp-loving tree and can be found in hickory bogs. During wintertime these bogs flood and waterfowl like wood ducks take advantage and forage on the nuts. The tree is considered fast growing and can survive in wet soils that most other trees cannot.
Next time you are walking around in the woods of Polk County see if you can spot some of the trees in the walnut family. If you are feeling adventurous you may even want to sample a nut and see how it compares to the beloved pecan.