Pat’s Wildways: Heirloom pecans disappearing

By Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D.

April 28, 2022

Pecans collected from heirloom trees in Fernandina many years ago.

It seems like just yesterday I was roaming the historic district of Fernandina Beach, collecting pecans. I was underemployed then, with lots of time on my hands, and I came up with an original idea for Christmas gifts for my family up north. Amelia Island heirloom pecans! I spent days in the fall scoping out the pecan trees that graced much of the downtown area and collecting nuts along the sidewalks and streets. I wasn’t alone in this endeavor. My friend Frank Zalenski, a former WWII B-29 pilot, was ahead of me in this quest, and one day he walked with me around the historic district pointing out pecan trees that he had found. We had many conversations about the best pecan trees in the area. Some had small nuts, some were harder to crack than others, and a few trees had the very best large pecans, the ones we preferred.

That season I spend many hours cracking pecans I had picked up from the streets, then roasting and seasoning them and packaging them as gifts along with this card. “Amelia Island Heirloom Pecans, hand plucked from the streets of Fernandina from heirloom pecan trees in the historic district. Hand-shelled, roasted and spiced by Pat F-T. Enjoy! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” And then I put these special nuts in boxes filled out with unshelled pecans and a nut cracker with another note of instructions about “Zen and the art of pecan cracking” for those who wanted to shell the nuts themselves. I must say, that year my handmade Christmas presents were a real hit up north.

Mature pecan logs stacked up where they have been cut down to make room for a new house in downtown Fernandina.

But that was then, more than a decade ago. Frank is no longer with us. And, alas, the pecan trees are rapidly disappearing too. The trees that were in unpaved parking lots have died when they were surrounded by concrete paving. Other trees seemed to have disappeared too. And then I saw why. A couple of weeks ago I was driving along South Sixth Street and witnessed a pile of large log sections, what remained of two mature, healthy-looking pecan trees on a small lot to make way, I imagine, for an oversized house. One of the trees cut down was in the far back corner of the lot, nowhere near where a house could be built.  This is an act that is not illegal despite the work to have a city tree ordinance, which has no teeth in the wake of recent statewide laws that limit community controls.

Now, very few large pecan trees exist here anymore, and I fear for the remaining ones. So much for collecting “heirloom pecans from the historic streets of Fernandina.” That ship has sailed. It’s another bit of old Fernandina that exists no longer. This unregulated growth and destruction of nature is getting to be too much to bear for this long time resident. There’s just so much an ecologist like myself can witness and stay sane.

A healthy grove of pecan trees line the road in south Georgia.

For now, at least, Bucko and I can drive away to more rural areas to get the nature fixes we need. On a recent trip through south Georgia I happily admired all the groves of pecan trees that lined many of the roads we travelled. In one grove I even saw an especially large pecan tree with its trunk covered in decorative ribbons. I’ve seen such decorated trees along roads in Southeast Asia, where the spirit of certain trees are honored and respected by local residents. And here in Georgia I can only think that this also was people showing admiration and respect for such a grandiose tree, respect it deserves.

Chopping down such revered trees comes with danger in Southeast Asia. The tree spirits that are displaced become angry and seek revenge on the perpetrators in all sorts of mystical manners, which many people there believe in. Well, here we don’t have such a culture about respecting trees, but if there is such a thing as karma, some people moving here may find out for themselves.

Please respect the nature that remains on Amelia Island, while little bits of it still survive. I believe that nature is the soul of our island, and now it is becoming soul-less. There seems no end in sight to the destruction and erosion of nature on the island. And, sadly, it’s getting time for me to move on.

Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]



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Diana Herman
Diana Herman(@dianah1229)
2 years ago

Thank you Pat for this heartfelt and important piece on our disappearing trees. Our beautiful trees that sustain us in so many ways —clean our air, protect us from storms, provide homes for wildlife, give us much needed shade in those summer months—we need to value them! Our island’s natural beauty is its soul! I’m sorry to hear you will be moving on, but I understand. It’s painful to watch.

MaryAnn Howat
MaryAnn Howat(@mahowat)
2 years ago

I too lament the observable destruction of mature healthy beautiful trees of any kind. I have lived here since 1994 and see visible signs of more care for construction than preserving our environment. Less respect for nature is killing our planet’s ecosystem ever faster EVERYWHERE.

Pierre Laberge
Pierre Laberge (@guest_64859)
2 years ago

So true Pat we need more people like you to wake people to such important aspect of our life, that tree in the back yard could have been saved, but since the heavy machinery was already there, let,s go , Amelia in a few yrs will be like Montreal, NewYork, Chicago full of pavement, cement, sidewalks.. etc. Thank you for observation

Mary Anne Sharer
Mary Anne Sharer(@mwaikartgmail-com)
2 years ago

Those trees provided so many warm feelings about our little town – finding the nuts each year was a treat. And the trees were beautiful, loved, and needed for our health and protection from the elements. I, too, mourn the loss of so many trees here, and so much “small townness’ with them. Reading about the arrival of cruise ships, the probable development of Pages Dairy Road (and the ugliness that will likely bring – another A1A?), the challenge to the County for eleven 85-foot buildings on the south end, etc. etc. – it’s all overwhelming and seemingly unstoppable. Thank you, Pat, for writing that beautiful but sad article about our collective loss.

Helene Lopes
Helene Lopes (@guest_64861)
2 years ago

As the trees are going away , the companies who build should plant Florida trees and put the cheap trees in the fire. Birds have moved away, pollution has increased, and the road pavement and concrete have made higher temperatures. Rain water will flow to the streets and not be absorbed into the ground. It boggles the mind. Start at home and make it a Florida environment. Find out what plants and trees are indigenous and plant them. Let Florida be the Sunshine State and not the Tree Stripper State. The road to environmental repair starts with us. It’s only too late if we don’t act now.

Margaret Kirkland, Amelia Tree Conservancy
2 years ago

Thank you, Pat, for this beautiful and important article. I say important because, as Diana pointed out, our trees are important for our our health and well being. Since we are facing the hazards of climate change, flooding and sea level rise, our trees are more critically important than ever before. Also, as Pat illustrates, the quirky small-town character of Fernandina Beach is central to the attraction of Amelia Island, Maintaining the character of the city is one of the primary themes of Vision Plan 2045, and we need to understand the role of our trees and other elements of the environment in this character. The character of the City is important for our economic health as well as for our quality of life.

Mark Tomes
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
2 years ago

Such heartfelt sentiments are appreciated. You can channel that energy into helping to elect people who are willing to stand up to developers and politicians who care more about money and power than citizens and our environment. Beware the greenwashing by DeSantis and others who pretend to care for the environment.

Ernest Davis
Ernest Davis(@epd3)
2 years ago

We love paradise so much we’ll pave it and put up a parking lot, as the song says! What surprises me is the scale and the speed at which it is being done. The new developments in Nassau County are not building homes in the the pine forests, they are ripping out the forest completely and replacing it. We aren’t losing just a few trees, but a whole ecosystem. Scattered islands of “tree museums”, as the song goes, won’t sustain life.

Michael T Eaton
Michael T Eaton (@guest_64916)
2 years ago

While it may be true they are cutting down the trees in your town and that is displeasing to the eye. I would hardly venture to call them heirloom pecans. As a pecan producer I can say there are enormous numbers of native stands throughout the south. These trees are from pecans that have been planted by man by wildlife or by chance and the tree was never grafted. As far as preservation of key discovered varieties that have genetic traits to create new varieties or if you want an old variety to graft on to a seedling the USDA pecan research station in Brownwood tx can supply graftwood or direct an individual to where to buy trees or odd varieties of pecans. Thank you for your love of America’s native nut, the pecan.