Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Big Pecan Tree at Natchez Trace State Park

One of the world's largest pecan trees

Big Pecan Tree in 2004, Natchez Trace State Park in western Tennessee
Copyright © 2004 Ric Brooks. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The Big Pecan Tree of Carroll County, Tennessee (above photo) was one of the world's largest pecan trees. In 1958, it was measured as 104 feet in height, 125 feet in crown spread, and 17 feet 8 inches in circumference of the trunk. Though it was a mature tree, it was still growing! In 1973 (image of the tree in about 1973), it was measured as 106 feet in height, 136 feet in spread, and 18 feet 2 inches in circumference. Its shade was said to cover an acre of ground.

The American Forestry Association recorded the tree's 1973 measurements in its Register of Big Trees and named it "The World's Largest Pecan Tree". It held the title for a short time, but within a year, larger pecan trees were found in Louisiana and Virginia.

Ric Brooks' photo of the tree (above) was taken in 2004, near the end of the Big Pecan Tree's life. Deterioration is clearly evident; however, the size of the tree is suggested by the massive trunk and branch captured in the photo. The trunk was filled with concrete, some of which is visible. Because of the concrete, the exact age of the tree could not be ascertained.

Planted along the Natchez Trace

The Big Pecan Tree grew along the Natchez Trace in west-central Tennessee. I picked up an information sheet titled "Natchez Trace State Park History" at the state park's visitor center several years ago. It described the Natchez Trace as...
...originally... an ill-defined series of trails and paths beaten out by the Indians and perhaps the buffalo. Several of these trails, though individually unimportant, when joined together lead to a Northeasterly direction from the present day Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee.

Later the settlers would travel down the Trace to sell their goods, often on foot, further tramping out and identifying a more definite Trace.

(Source: Undated, unattributed hand-out from the Natchez Trace State Park Visitors Center)

A high, dry ridge in Carroll County, Tennessee, was an unlikely spot for The Big Pecan Tree to grow. Pecans were not native to that area, which suggests that an old legend about the tree is probably based on fact. Oral history claims that a pecan nut was brought to the site by travelers on the Natchez Trace, which passed a mere 30 feet from the site where the tree grew.

A plaque placed at the tree in the 1930s by the John McCall Chapter of the D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) recorded the legend: "Accepted tradition says that this tree had grown from a pecan given to Sukey Morris by one of Andrew Jackson's men as they traveled homeward after the Battle of New Orleans." No official records of Sukey Morris are known to exist, but it is thought she might have been the child of squatters who were living along the Natchez Trace. The area was still Indian territory at the end of the War of 1812.

The 1986 History of Carroll County provides some additional documentation of the tree's history:

In the book "Westward to the Roundtop", Mr. Morris mentions the pecan tree as a landmark in 1830. Families coming to Carroll County from North Carolina passed the tree on their way to Lexington from the Roundtop Community; it was already bearing fruit.

(Source: History of Carroll County, p. 63)

A life that spanned three centuries

The pecan (Carya illinoinensis) is long-lived, like its brethren, the hickories, and many other members of the walnut family. It reaches maturity at around 150-200 years. Many specimens survive 250 years or longer. If the Big Pecan Tree was planted in 1816, it would have been 188 years old in 2004, the date when Ric Brooks' photograph was taken.

The Big Pecan Tree, already supported with cables and filled with concrete by tree surgeons, was heavily damaged by a windstorm in 2000. For a few years, one large branch survived, as seen in the photo. Brooks commented on the tree's sad condition:
The tree was in pretty bad shape when I took that picture. That one limb was about 12 feet off the ground and stretched out about 15 feet. Just the limb itself was very impressive. You can see in the picture that the trunk was dying by then. It was alive but the person I was with and myself both knew that it wasn't long for this earth.

(Source: Email from Ric Brooks, November 20, 2009)

Now the tree has completely died. The remains of its trunk have been cut down and pushed into a gully, apparently in 2008 or early 2009. The D.A.R. plaque telling the legend of Sukey Morris has been removed.

"There's nothing left to see," a park secretary assured me, when I telephoned to inquire about the Big Pecan Tree. She underestimated my curiosity. I would enjoy seeing even the stump.

On the web:
Natchez Trace Pecan, Wildersville, TN

10 comments -- please add yours:

C R Bennett said...

I remember this tree from my childhood. I grew up in southern Carroll County in West Tennessee. I saw a news story about a 240 year on tree today and it made me think of this tree in Nachez Trace. Amazingly, I found it on the web in just 3 clicks.

Clint Bennett
Birmingham, AL
Closet Tree Hugger

Genevieve said...

Thanks for visiting, Clint. It's nice that in your memories the Big Pecan is still a robust tree.

And a word of advice -- you should hug a real tree with bark and leaves some time. Those closet trees are nothing at all like the real thing. ;)

Salena said...

When I was a child, my grandmother worked at Natchez Trace and I spent several summers in the Headquarters while she babysat me there. She would take me to see the Pecan Tree every week and it always left me gazing up at it. I had never seen a tree so big! After my grandmother died I decided to go back and find the Pecan Tree to try to remember those forgotten summers, but sadly it was already cut down after I found it.

Ron Good said...

I recall seeing this tree with my young boys in 1973. When we arrived my boys were puzzled as to the absents of pecans. I laughed when I realized they were talking about pee cans like we kept in the car for them.

Misty said...

I live in Oklahoma now, but my last trip for a visit was in May of 2009 and we had made plans to stop at several roadside attractions along the way including to see the tree. We had not heard of its demise and were greatly saddened to find just the stump/ I posted a picture here

Misty E, said...

I drove by the old pecan tree today. I live on the Benton County/Decatur County line. I was shocked to find the tree is no longer there. No one ever told me that the tree was gone. Last time I saw it was 2005 or maybe even 2006. I grew up not even 5 miles from the park and it is a memory that will live forever from my childhood.

MemoriesWithMarti said...

I also remember this tree. I grew up in the Bruceton - Hollow Rock area. We would drive down to Cub Lake and stop at this tree for picnics in the pavillion there. I am sad to know that it is gone. Thanks for this history. Now I can leave some information for my children who see this old tree in many of my childhood photos.

Marti McBride

Anonymous said...

I am sorry guys but I got this tree beat... I need to get a picture of this tree posted somewhere but I think I might just have the world largest pecan tree. I havent measured it but I know three grown men couldn't wrap their arms around its trunk and touch fingers. There are LIMBS that fall off of it bigger than the surrounding trees. No kidding. How can I validate my claimes?

Julia in SC said...

I was told, as a child, that the land the large pecan tree was on had once belonged to my great-grandfather (1869-1953). His mother was a Cherokee Indian. Ironically, on the Trail of Tears list, there is a "Sukey". So, the name could be a Native American. According to the Cherokee nation, the surname "Morris" is found many times among the Cherokee (where inter-racial marriages had taken place). And small groups of Cherokee were scattered around Western TN. I have always wondered if the Sukey Morris on the D.A.R. plaque and my great-great grandmother were the same woman or one of her ancestors. I have never been able to piece together the data. The U.S. did not count Native Americans, in the Census rolls, until after WWII. Could this be why there are no official records of Sukey Morris?

Barry Cary said...

I grew up in Southern Carroll County near the Pecan Tree. Our ancestors came in wagon trains from North Carolina in the 1830's. Ironically, John Morris led one of the early groups (his Great Great Grandson was Mayor of McKenzie in late 1950's). Most of my ancestors are buried on or near Natchez Trace Park. We visited the Pecan Tree often when we were kids. It has always been special to those raised in that area. It was indeed sad to Witness its deterioration and eventually demise - but fond memories and written history survives for future generations. Arthur Morris's 1964 Book "Westward to the Round Top" provides an excellent documentary of this region, settlers, and historical landmarks made famous during this era.

Barry Cary - Jackson, Tennessee June 23, 2017

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

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Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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