Enormous, Nutty Roots
or, My Epic Battle With the Pecans

Rather than having a barbecue, I spent my Labor Day weekend battling my personal demons. And before you think I mean that in the profound, metaphysical way that befits an English Ph.D. candidate, let me clarify: I spent Labor Day pulling up pecan trees.

OK, maybe trees is a slight exaggeration. They were seedlings, to be honest. But unlike many other kinds of seedlings, pecan seedlings are, in a nutshell (hardy har), profoundly evil. Because while lots of seeds - say, elm seeds, of which we also have plenty - hit the ground and promptly start growing up, pecans burrow into the ground and start growing down. By the time you see an inch-long pecan seedling above ground, it's already grown a root at least twice that long. And when I say "a root," singular, I mean it. Pecans don't bother with multiple roots that spread across a surface area. Instead, they just focus all their little, nutty energy on sending down one enormous root. (And I'm sure I'll be getting some fascinating Google hits from that sentence).

Fig. 1. Here's the second-biggest pecan "seedling," alongside a 12-inch ruler. Each square on the linoleum is 6 inches. So this sucker's top is about 9 inches, and its root a good 18 inches long. (The biggest one - see fig. 2 - had a root over 24 inches long.)

Also, it is clearly no match for a hungry cat.

Given that I didn't remove these back when they were inch-long seedlings because it was such a pain in the ass, I now had to deal with six-inch-long plants and footlong or longer roots (see fig. 1), and a much bigger pain in the ass. If you've ever weeded a garden, you'll understand the pain that is a weed with footlong roots. If you haven't weeded a garden before, all you need to know are three things:

First, to keep a weed from growing back, you need to take it out roots and all - otherwise the roots keep growing and eventually send up shoots again, and the plant is right back where it started, but even more firmly rooted. (See fig. 2)

Second, you can't just pull at the root after unearthing a small part of it; most of the time it breaks rather than coming out of the ground, in which case - see above - you still haven't actually removed the root. So to pull out a foot-long root, you need to dig almost a foot deep into the ground.

Third, digging a foot-deep hole in the ground is a serious pain in the ass.

That third part is especially true when it's summer in Texas.

And in Texas, September is definitely still summer.

Fig. 2. Note the plant on the far left, with its deceptively small top (only about 4 inches) and enormous (about 18 inches long) root. This is one I clearly tried to pull out a while back but only pulled out the top part; its top is small, but damn is its bottom big. (And yeah, I'm going to be getting all kinds of weird hits on this entry.)

Also, you will note that Zora does not share my disdain for pecans. She seems to feel that not only are the nuts tasty, but the seedlings are as well.

Sweat dripping down my face, I tried to get those damn seedlings out any way I could, and those sons of bitches were doing their damndest to resist me. I alternated between coaxing, cursing, and cajoling them, secure in the knowledge that passersby would assume that the crazy lady talking to pecans in her garden was not actually speaking to her plants, but just wearing a cell phone headset.

For some strange reason, neither coaxing nor cajoling worked, and the cursing didn't seem to do the trick either. I was stuck with digging, and even my beloved Garden Claw, perhaps the best weeding tool I've ever encountered, was throwing up its nonexistent hands, ready to throw in its nonexistent towel.

When I only spent fifteen minutes on a plant, I was ecstatic. The worst ones took over half an hour, and would have taken longer if I hadn't hit on the brilliant idea of digging a good three-quarters of the way down and then filling the hole with water, which loosened the dirt enough so I could pull the rest of the damn root up.

You might be wondering, of course, why I'm so dead set against having pecan trees in my garden that I'm willing to spend hours of my vacation on uprooting them. Particularly if, like me, you grew up somewhere that didn't have pecan trees, you might well be thinking, "But pecans - yum!" or "Pecan trees and mint juleps - isn't that what's good about the South?" (see fig. 3)

You'd be right about the mint juleps. But ever so wrong about the pecans.

Fig. 3. Zora, helpfully depicting the misguided sense that pecans of any kind are actually just yummy, tasty things.

Once they're well past the aggravating-seedling stage, you see, pecan trees move from irritating to downright dangerous. For reasons that make no kind of sense, evolutionary or otherwise, pecan trees every so often just decide it's time to chuck one of their branches. Big, healthy branches come crashing down from pecan trees from time to time. After one limb half as long as our entire backyard came within millimeters of breaking a window, I figured I should find out if maybe our trees were suffering from some kind of strange disease. "Oh," I was told, "That's just what they do."

So this fall, as the pecan nuts - and pecan tree limbs - drop, I'm trying to collect them before they have the chance to turn into seedlings. Maybe I'll bake them into a pie. Maybe I'll give them to friends. But those that have already started to burrow into the ground I will throw into the street - much to the delight of the neighborhood birds, because for them and for me, the sound of car wheels crushing pecans is a rare delight.


12. September 2004


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