Pecans are a microcosm of Americana. “As the Stuart Pecan Company would brag in 1893: ‘We [Americans] have rightfully a monopoly upon the nut.’”
Wild pecan trees proliferate in riverine ecosystems coursing through the southern United States. Their domesticated, often patented counterparts now satisfy huge consumer demand for these indigenous nuts, once vital to tribal commerce. Indeed, the name pecan is derived “from an Algonquin word meaning, loosely translated, ‘a nut too hard to crack by hand.’”
Close scrutiny of my favorite bourbon pecan pie recipe offers some unusual insights regarding the importance of plant patents, what copyright originality means as applied to classic recipes, and chef brands tarnished by the #MeToo social movement. This post cracks open these peculiarly American socio-legal issues.
Wild versus Patented Pecan Trees
To delve into a pecan pie, one must understand its progenitors. Wild pecan trees tower over other trees as a “climax tree species.” In record time, this wild hickory plant (Carya illinoinensis) morphed into pecan cultivar orchards that dominate landscapes in Georgia, New Mexico, and other non-native states.
The pecan, however, remained “a wild plant for a much longer time than any other commodified fruit or nut primarily because its wild variety happened to bear fruit that tasted supremely domesticated.”
From the commercial grower’s perspective, applying orchard techniques to cultivate pecans in ecosystems far removed from their natural habitat creates a host of profound production issues.
- Pecans do not grow true to seed, so grafting trees is the only way to ensure nut quality and consistency.
- Pecans do not “mast” (i.e., bear nuts) every year, or even every other year sometimes. In addition, an orchard of cultivated pecan trees can take at least eight years to begin masting “at full throttle and as many as fifteen years before they reach peak production.”
- Domesticated pecan cultivars are susceptible to a host of plant viruses and pests that their wild counterparts can avoid in their natural habitats.
Many of these grower issues can only be solved through inventing or discovering pecan tree varieties with new attributes. In this regard, one inventor rules this market space: Dr. Darrell Sparks, who is associated with the University of Georgia. His book, Pecan Cultivars:The Orchard’s Foundation (1992), is the leading authority in this field of commerce.
Sparks’ latest discovery, a pecan tree named ‘Tanner,’ will soon issue in 2018 as his seventh U.S. patent. He describes its novel contribution:
‘Tanner’ is distinguished from other pecan varieties known to the inventor due to the following unique combination of characteristics: Consistent and acceptable fruit production, small fruit cluster, early nut maturity, large nut producing mammoth kernels with excellent color and high resistance to scab fungus . . . and moderate resistance to black aphid . . . . ‘Tanner’ will fill in a niche for large nuts similar in size to ‘Desirable’ but with the advantage of earlier maturity and high resistance to scab.
Plant patents tend to have long gestation times, and ‘Tanner’ is no exception. It originated in 1995 through crossing a ‘Desirable’ pecan tree cultivar as the seed parent with a ‘Pawnee’ cultivar as the pollen parent.