My wife and I call them "tassels," but the correct term for these annual visitors from our pecan tree each late-May to early-June is catkins. They're beautiful. Really, they are. Small dangling instances that one day will find their own way into pies, pralines, and brownies through that buttery nut called the pecan. Did you know that pecans are not technically "nuts," but drupes? These are fruit that have a pit that contains the seed. Like a peach pit. (Other examples are coffee, mangoes, olives, plums, apricots.) When we eat a pecan, we're cracking open the pit and eating the seed at its heart. But we call it a nut, and you'll find pecans in a can of Planter's Mixed Nuts. We come by our confusion of drupes and nuts honestly, since the term "pecan" stems from the native Algonquians and means "a nut needing a stone to crack." So there.
"Nut" works for me, for no other reason than the obvious fact that these tassels drive me nuts!
Just check out the "After" picture above. Look closer. Maybe you can make out the red-brown boards peeking through all the green. That's our deck--two hours after we swept it! I'll
spare you pictures of our kitchen and living room floors, the stairs, won't describe for you what a tassel tastes like when you're trying to enjoy dinner on the deck and the catkin makes a sneaky
airdrop into your romaine and spinach salad. These simple pollinated tassels turn into invasive creatures, small chlorophyllous caterpillars, the green-yellow larvae that crawl and creep up your
stairs, stick like ticks to your sock-feet or braid their way into the matted mane of Maya the Wonder Dog. For a brief eternity each spring, they mock even my most disciplined attempts at
sweeping and vacuuming.
It helps during the "Tassel Season," to take a deep breath and step back. To do this several times a day, in fact. To cut back on the caffeine and recall a little botany. Each pecan tree produces both male and female flowers, but always at different times. Some bud out with female blossoms first, then the male ones follow suit later. But other pecan trees, like ours, produce the "male" tassels first. They flower out and pollinate. Later, the small star-shaped "female" flowers will blossom at the tips of the new branches. Now, here's where it all gets interesting and a tad complicated: by the time the female flowers appear, the male flowers have vamoosed with their magical pollen dust. (I love that botanists use the intriguing term "self incompatible" to describe this!) Which means that pecan trees are interdependent. Without one another they cannot bear fruit. Our tree needs another pecan tree, preferably one that's not to far away (around 200 feet or so) and whose male flowers prefer to sleep in and are always running late. That way, this lazy neighboring tree (or cultivar) will be right on time to pollinate our tree and assure that we have pecan pie for Thanksgiving.
Of course, I never knew all of this until I had my own pecan tree. Growing up in eastern Arkansas, pecan groves were common, but we only visited them in the fall to go "pecan pickin'." But now
that I live with this tree all year long, and must visit it daily and care for it throughout all seasons, I can see why some people refer to them as "trash" trees. Notwithstanding the pecans,
they're a mess of tassels, leaves, limbs, and husks. But they're worth it. Besides the pecans, they are a great example of how nature's indifference to us can be redemptive. If we draw close and
pay attention, they serve as an example of the masculine and the feminine energies we all embody. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung encouraged us as men and women to bring these two sides of ourselves
together, the assertive and the receptive, the willful and the willing, to integrate these both internally and within society. Jung knew that such introspection and community would not be easy,
indeed, that it would take heroic energy. Just witness the continual communication divide and inequality that exists between men and women today. We're different, yes. We live in a
"gendered" world, but such a declaration only points out our great need for each other. Mars and Venus are planetary neighbors in the same galaxy. They must share one another's gravitas
in order to honor their respective orbits.
So, using the pecan tree as our shady mentor, we see that delicious pecans can't happen without the messy havoc of pecan trees. Pecans are the product of male and female energies coming together in a fruitful way. In order to do this, they cannot live in isolation. They "need" another tree or two nearby in order to integrate the male and female energies they bear. In their own way, they mirror our own call as unique and more highly complex amalgams of yearning. We long for both individual growth and authentic community. What about all the relational hassles that drive us nuts at times--the tassels, limbs, husks and leaves? They are the best we can do, given the season. They all have their role to play in pushing us toward real wholeness, where both personal integrity and community matter, and a more fruitful life before God awaits, tassels and all.
I'll leave you with this wonderful poem by Arkansas poet Jo McDougall:
Coming home to visit my parents' graves,
I enter the house where I was born.
My mother sits at a table, sewing,
her eyes a deepening blue.
My father comes in from the fields.
Until now I have never known
that intent young man,
that slender woman
who lean toward each other
and touch hands
and rise together to climb the stairs,
long vistas of the fields dissolving
as dusk puts down its roots.
~from Satisfied with Havoc (Autumn House Press)
Write a comment
Chris Holmes (Wednesday, 27 May 2015 20:18)
Yeah, yeah, yeah, that is a lot about Pecan Trees. The revealing question is, "Do you pronounce it 'pecan' or 'pecon'? There is only one right way!
By the way, I like thinking I am a "highly complex amalgam of yearning." Sounds about right.
Steve Hollaway (Wednesday, 27 May 2015 21:27)
I thought surely you were going to link pecan tassels to college graduation! As in: maybe those tassels of achievement last about as long...
Like the poem--wonder if you remembered that Rick St John was a big shot at Autumn House for several years.
Terry Minchow-Proffitt (Thursday, 28 May 2015 11:11)
Chris: PUH-KAHN, period. Although I say this map (that doesn't really list the way I say it) indicating that the pronunciation is pretty varied, even in the South! You're such a Yankee!
Terry Minchow-Proffitt (Thursday, 28 May 2015 11:13)
Steve, I responded to your post via email but wanted to add that I'm so grateful that you take the time to read my blog. It means so much to me! Thank you.
Terry Minchow-Proffitt (Thursday, 28 May 2015 11:14)
Chris, here's the map: armflavor.com/how-do-you-say-pecan-mapping-food-dialect-trends-across-the-u-s/
Doug SG (Thursday, 28 May 2015 11:22)
Drupes! I love that term...and chestnuts are drupes also! The techno world has tried to conquer the term for its own ends...an app that combines communication and contact apps in one place.
The urban dictionary for drupe is sort of funny... Man, the dude is a drupe....!
Terry Minchow-Proffitt (Thursday, 28 May 2015 11:39)
Sir DSG, drupes rock!
Matthew Lippman (Friday, 29 May 2015 15:32)
Yes. Love the pecan stuff. "Real wholeness." I'm interested in that. Great stuff, Terry. Also, the poem.
Terry Minchow-Proffitt (Friday, 29 May 2015 16:20)
Matthew, it's so cool that you're reading these blogs. Thanks so much! I appreciate all your encouragement.
matthew lippman (Saturday, 30 May 2015 11:26)
i dig your sh*&*T
Cenepk10 (Thursday, 19 May 2016 16:47)
Ugh. It's tassel falling time- had to laugh at your post- because my sheepdog has the stuck all in her coat & theyre all theough the house. Ran across you post looking for how long " the fall " lasts & how much time I have before the creepy caterpillars run me off my porch. Now - where do the caterpillars come from ?
Glenda (Sunday, 22 May 2016 10:12)
Back to the tassel itself. Are the tassels good for anything after they fall? Like mulch or in your mulch pile?
Terry Minchow-Proffitt (Sunday, 22 May 2016 19:54)
Glenda, from what I can gather (Google), it looks like the tassels and leaves, though acidic, are good for mulching. Also, pecan shells too! Ours just get swept off into the yard surrounding the deck, where they continue the organic cycle. (However, apparently walnut leaves are too acidic.)
Terry Minchow-Proffitt (Sunday, 22 May 2016 20:10)
Cene, good luck with all the tassels. As best I can tell, the tassel falling season runs about two weeks around here (St. Louis). But I bet that depends on the weather. A good rain or windy storm can certainly speed up the process!
Melanie (Thursday, 12 April 2018 07:26)
A wonderful start to the day with your perfect screed. I was cursing the tassels until you calmed me with your wit. Unveiling the new deck rug can wait another week considering the fruit to come in Fall. Thanks
Bob Morell (Saturday, 05 May 2018 12:29)
Thanks! Got a great band name now "The Drupes"!
Patty best (Tuesday, 15 May 2018 17:40)
If you have an abundance of tassells will you have abundance of pecans? Or doesn't it have anything to do with it.
Angel (Tuesday, 15 May 2018 21:09)
Can you save the tassellls to pollinate your tree later?
Terry (Wednesday, 16 May 2018 15:02)
Melanie, you are most welcome! Thanks for reading!
Terry (Wednesday, 16 May 2018 15:03)
Bob, you're absolutely right! Love it!
Terry (Wednesday, 16 May 2018 15:04)
Patty, it seems to stand to reason, but I honestly don't know!
Terry (Wednesday, 16 May 2018 15:07)
Angel, great question! But I have no idea,
Pam (Friday, 25 May 2018 11:07)
found this, height of pecan tassel season here in OKC. Enjoyed your insights.
Cindy (Wednesday, 10 April 2019 19:30)
Terry, thank you!! I now know what those very aggravating tassles are correctly called.
Brian (Friday, 26 April 2019 04:44)
We have three pecan trees. One in my yard and two in my sons yard next-door. We are in the middle of tassel season, so I thought I would Google some information. Inquiring minds want to know! Turned out Terry, your information I will share as part of a devotion to my Christian men’s group this Sunday. As man, woman and God come together when married, an amalgam is created. I am also reminded of what we can learn from trees and how they are part of the creation story, i.e. the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Thanks Terry for your insight!
Lee Ann (Sunday, 19 May 2019 15:07)
I never knew what those things were called! Growing up here, my pa always went on with his day, never complaining of a "catkin". We bought this over 100 year old farm not long after my sweet grandmother died. I always hated these things and have also found that a bumper crop of them does not equal a thousand pecan pies. We have 9 and I will never know exactly why my grandfather settled on these trees to shade our farmhouse. I find that the acid level is too much for many flowers. It would be easier for me to tell you what it does not harm, like geraniums, impatients, and some ferns. I do use it for mulch, except only on the pecan trees. A little other need to know fact, they will rot every bit of the rubber on a car, especially around the sunroof! I would love to cut all of them down but the shade is nice and not easily replaced. In Alabama, the tassel phase is followed by the Kayro syrup phase, then falling limbs, only to leave us with no pecan. I did like your post though�
Kathryn (Tuesday, 05 May 2020 07:12)
Your words of wisdom were shared with my husband as we sat having coffee beneath the pergola which is under our pecan tree. Our main gripe with the tassels is that each Spring our Sheltie, Annabelle's, fur attracted these things like a magnet and she carried them inside the house unwittingly. Then the vaccum and broom became clogged with them. We do still enjoy the nuts that you have to use a rock to crack!
Terry Minchow-Proffitt (Tuesday, 05 May 2020 10:28)
Kathryn, thanks for writing! Yes, our dog does the same! Our tassels just began to fall over the weekend. After a nice rainstorm last night, the deck's a mess and there's a small catkin trail reaching in from the back door where Maya the Wonder dog comes in and out. Enjoy!
Charles Jones (Saturday, 15 May 2021 13:03)
I grew up in Texas where the pecan tree is the state tree. They grow all over the place so pollination is never a problem. Squirrels plant them and more grow all the time. As for the matter of pronunciation, it depends on where you grew up, but I am sure that a can used for urination is not how it should be pronounced.
Judy Payne (Friday, 28 May 2021 11:07)
Would really like to know how long the tassel seaso lasts!!! It is driving me crazy!!
Bonnie (Tuesday, 08 June 2021 19:26)
I get the loveliness of the pecan tree and it’s mating magic. Yet unlike the pecan tree, I live alone and I can’t climb on my house to get this insane mess off my roof. These little rascals are tough even the heavy rain doesn’t move them. Will they ruin my roof? I love my pecan trees for the shade because the pecan it produces is so small only the tiny paws of the squirrels can enjoy them.
Sincerely being drive nuts by the tassels���
Terry Minchow-Proffitt (Wednesday, 09 June 2021 10:46)
Bonnie, delightful response! I wish I knew a thing or two about roofs. I'm afraid our gutters are tassel stuffed!
David W (Thursday, 19 May 2022 07:11)
I've just finished my weekly coffee and warm pastry at my small-town bakery in North Carolina. Just overhead are two towering puh-kahns (my PA Mom's pronunciation) at the inviting al fresco side of the shoppe.
I gathered some nuts from one of these trees a few years ago and now a baby tree from one successful germination is growing on my property together with 3 more advanced paper shell pecan trees I purchased from my local grocery store.
At my somewhat advanced 65 years, I may not get to ever see any catkins or tassels or mature fruit, but it still delights me to observe these youngsters as they grow just a bit more each year.
My Dad grew up on a farm in southern SC where his father would load a pickup full of nuts and drive them up into the Appalachian Mtns to generate a bit of extra family revenue.
Round and round this earth spins in its never-ending cyclical process as generations of pecan loving families ebb and flow!
Mark (Friday, 10 June 2022 14:52)
New to the pecan tree business, recently purchased a home that happened to have a small pecan orchard of 21 trees. I believe approximately 20 years of age. I am in North Texas, outside of Forth Worth. I have plenty of catkins (new word for my vocabulary) but when should I expect to see the beginnings of the fruit/nut? I believe the trees are Choctaw and Cheyenne or Pawnee. I have to admit they are beautiful trees, this being June 10th I would think I would see some beginnings of a nut? Maybe you could shed some light for this novice? Thx