How to Collect and Prepare a Pecan or Hickory Nut for Planting

Pecan tree and pecan nuts

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Of the dozen or so American hickories, shellbark and shagbark hickory trees have shown some promise as edible nut producers. These are the only two Carya species (with the exception of pecan, scientific name Carya illinoensis) typically planted for nut production. All the following hickory nut suggestions apply as well to the collection and preparation of pecans.

Timing

Hickory flowers in the spring and completes nut maturity in early fall. Beginning as early as the first of September and continuing through November, various species of hickory nuts ripen and are ready for collection. Ripening dates can vary slightly from year to year and from state to state by as many as three to four weeks, so it is not possible to use precise dates to determine maturity.

The best time to collect hickory nuts, either off the tree or from the ground, is when they begin falling: It is just that simple. Prime picking is late September through the first week in November, depending on the individual hickory tree species and its location within the United States. The hickory nut is perfect when the husks begin to split.

Collecting

The height of the hickory nut crop in a forest canopy and the thick forest litter below can make it somewhat difficult for the casual collector to gather large numbers of nuts (although it's not impossible). Another challenge is harvesting nuts before wildlife does.

It is also important to remember that nut availability is never an annual given. Good hickory crops (called mast) of all species are produced at intervals of one to three years, so finding nuts can be a challenge in any given fall season.

With that in mind, find forest trees that are open-grown with little forest underbrush. Yard trees or trees near paved areas make for easier collection in urban and suburban areas. Always identify the tree and place tags or mark the bags, so you will know what species you have collected.

Storing

Storage tests with pecan and shagbark hickory have demonstrated that hickories are like most other nut and acorn species: They should be dried to a low moisture content and refrigerated if not planted immediately. To be specific, Carya nuts should be dried to below 10 percent moisture and stored at around 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If stored in sealed containers, the nuts should be able to retain good viability for two years. They will lose half to two-thirds of their ability to germinate after four years.

Although hickory needs very little cold over a full season, studies show that viability can be improved by soaking the nuts in water at 70 degrees Fahrenheit for 64 hours. Some nut species need stratification or a cold period of time to fully improve the germination process.

Put damp peat mix or sawdust together with the dried hickory nuts in a polyethylene plastic bag that has a wall thickness of four to ten millimeters. These bags are ideal for storing nuts since they are permeable to carbon dioxide and oxygen but impermeable to moisture. Close the bag loosely and store in the refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit until planting time. Check nuts throughout the winter and keep just barely damp.

Planting

You can plant unrefrigerated nuts in the fall and let the winter season do what nature does—refrigerate. You can also spring-plant with stratified or cold-treated seed or take a chance on unstratified seed.

For ground planting: Great results have been reported with fall seed sowing for hickory, but good mulching is necessary. Mulch should remain until germination is complete. Shading is generally not necessary, but hickory may profit from some initial shade. Protection from rodents may be required for fall-sowings.

For container planting: After determining the proper time to plant, you should place nuts in moderately loose potting soil in one-gallon pots or deeper containers. The taproot will grow quickly to the bottom of containers and root width is not as important.

Containers should have holes in the bottom to allow for drainage. Place hickory nuts on their sides at a depth of one-half the width to about the width of the nut. Keep the soil moist but not wet. Keep the "pots" from freezing.