Cover: Cropped image by W.G. Baxter, USDA Forest Service, United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One thing we’ve noticed in our road trips around America is that there are a lot of “Pecan Capitals” out there. For example, there are the state pecan capitals like Brunswick, Missouri’s largest pecan producing city.  Then there’s Albany, Georgia, that, with over 600,000 pecan trees, touts itself as the “Pecan Capital of the USA”. And even though Georgia does, indeed, lead the world in pecan production (and, we might add, has done so since the late 1800s with the exception of a couple of years that New Mexico gave them a good run for their money), there’s San Saba, Texas, which proclaims itself as “The Pecan Capital of the World.”

In all honesty, however, we do see San Saba’s point. After all, it’s there just east of the city at the back of a 1,000-acre pecan orchard where stands the hardy wild pecan tree known as the “Mother Pecan” because of the dozens of varieties of pecans it has spawned over the last 150 years.

Today, we present the legend of that tree and the man who saved it from near extinction and used it to create some of the most delicious pecans that we still enjoy eating today.

The English Transplant

In the early 1870s, a twenty-something-year-old Edmund E. Risien and his wife Elizabeth made their way from the white cliffs of Dover, England, to the rolling hills of San Saba, Texas, where Edmund found work as a cabinetmaker.  In his free time, however, Edmund became fascinated with the pecan, so much so that he decided to host a first-of-its-kind pecan exposition to find what he hoped to be the finest pecan around.

And Mr. Risien and his expo did just that (though perhaps not in the way he expected).

You see, after judging the participant’s entries and finding what he believed to be the perfect pecan, Edmund asked the winning entrant to take him to see what surely must be such a splendid tree as to produce such a fine specimen. The owner agreed and took Edmund east of town to see the tree from whence the winning pecans came. However, upon seeing the tree, Risien was completely horrified.

There in front of him was a pecan tree with all but one branch removed; the others, according to the owner, had been sawed off in order to harvest the pecans for Mr. Risien’s exhibition. The owner went on to explain that, in fact, The reason there was only one branch left, was that he needed to stand on that one in order to saw the other branches off. Nevertheless, Risien would eventually purchase the tree and the land it stood on.

The Tree Known by its Fruit

No one is really sure of the exact age of San Saba Pecan – the name that Risien had given the tree. What is known, however, is that pecans have been growing in the area since at least the days when Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado and his team first ambled into the area in the mid-18th century.

Postcard of San Saba pecan orchards c. 1960s.
Public Domain

Still, early settlers to the area saw pecans more as source of shelter and heat rather than a source of food, chopping down whole groves of them as a result.

Risien would save his pecan tree from becoming firewood, however, and over time it would grow back its crown and start producing high-quality nuts again. Risien then began to bring his dream of creating a whole orchard of these prized pecans into fruition – though, admittedly it was through a process of trial and error.

At first, Edmund tried planting 1000 seeds from the San Saba tree. After years of working and waiting, however, none of them produced the same quality fruit as the parent tree.

Next, Risien tried artificial pollination and spent hours and hours riding on his horse around San Saba County while he gathered male blossoms full of pollen to pollinate his beloved San Saba’s blooms– all to no avail.

Finally, he came upon the idea of budding and grafting, an idea first successfully introduced in Louisiana by a slave gardener named Antoine. This time it worked. Risien was able to successfully replicate the original quality of the San Saba’s fruit and his “Mother Tree” would eventually produce dozens of different varieties of pecans including Squirrel’s Delight, Liberty Bond, Jersey, No. 60, and Western Schley.

Deep Roots Remain

Mr. Risien eventually got the whole orchard of prized pecan trees and is, in fact, the reason why San Saba is the self-proclaimed “The Pecan Capital of the World”.  His orchard lives on in the hands of his great-great-grandchildren Winston and Kristen Millican and their Millican Pecan Company. What’s more, there in the back of what is now a 1,000 acre pecan farm, the San Sabo Mother Tree still abides. And although visitors are not allowed near the Mother Tree for its own protection, we take comfort in knowing she’s still out there keeping watch over her offspring.

San Saba may call itself the pecan capital of the world, but we know that Georgia produces more prized pecans than anywhere else in the world. That’s why we’re proud to use Georgia Grown pecans in all of our Stuckey’s products. In fact, we shell and process them right here in our very own candy plant in Wrens, Georgia, so you know that our pecan pralines, pecan divinity, and our world famous Stuckey’s Pecan Log Rolls contain the freshest and tastiest pecans in the world.

Try some for yourself today by visiting your local Stuckey’s or by ordering online from stuckeys.com.

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