Tassels and All

Pecan Tassels: Before . . .                   And After.
Pecan Tassels: Before . . . And After.

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:


Paying Attention


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

Comments: 14
  • #1

    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.

  • #2

    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.

  • #3

    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!

  • #4

    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.

  • #5

    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/

  • #6

    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....!

  • #7

    Terry Minchow-Proffitt (Thursday, 28 May 2015 11:39)

    Sir DSG, drupes rock!

  • #8

    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.

  • #9

    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.

  • #10

    matthew lippman (Saturday, 30 May 2015 11:26)

    i dig your sh*&*T

  • #11

    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 ?

  • #12

    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?

  • #13

    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.)

  • #14

    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!