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The Peanut

   Did you know that the Peanut is not a nut at all? It's in the legume family. Some other familiar names for it are goobers, ground pea, guinea seed, and monkey nut. Peanuts have been around for 3500 years. It's original home is believed to originate on the slopes of the Andes in Brazil and in Peru.                  Portuguese traders, explorers and missionaries transported the peanut to Africa and Spain. From Africa they traveled by ship to "The New World", and were planted throughout the south. Peanuts were an excellent food source aboard ships because they were inexpensive and nutritious.

   Virginia's first commercial crop was grown in Sussex County around mid 1840's. Popular Grove Plantation in North Carolina had their first peanut crop around 1818. The Civil War helped change the peanut status when both Union and Confederate soldiers used them for food during hard times. The Union soldiers liked them so much they carried them back to their northern homes.

   In 1870 P.T. Barnum's circus introduced "HOT ROASTED PEANUTS". As his circus wagons traveled from city to city the Roasted Peanut became famous, and began showing up in ballparks and movie theaters. Remember when the cheap theater seats were called "P-Nut Galleries"?

   A St. Louis doctor invented Peanut Butter around the 1890's. More than half of the US Peanuts are used to make this creamy, crunchy treat. Imagine a jelly sandwhich without Peanut Butter, and it's nutty taste!

In 1903 George Washington Carver researched the uses of P-Nuts at Tuskeegee Institute. This research led to the development of over 300 uses of the Peanut including soap, shampoo, cheese, mayonnaise, ice cream, medicine, ink, bleach, axle grease, and a wonderful snack. 
   Today Peanuts contribute over four billion dollars to the US economy and are an important crop in Virginia and North Carolina. Every year Americans consume an average of 12 LBS. of P-Nuts per person. Virginia has 3,000 Peanut farms and produces an average of 350 million LBS. per year.

How the Peanut Grows

   The peanut is unusual because if flowers above the ground, but fruits below the ground. Typical misconceptions of how peanuts grow places them on trees (like walnuts or pecans) or growing as a part of a root like potatoes.

   Peanut seeds (kernels) grow into a green oval-leafed plant about 18 inches tall, which develop delicate flowers around the lower portion of the plant. The flowers pollinate themselves and then lose their petals as the fertilized ovary begins to enlarge. The budding ovary or "peg" grows down away from the plant, forming a small stem, which extends to the soil. The Peanut embryo is in the tip of the peg, which penetrates the soil. The embryo turns horizontal to the soil surface and begins to mature taking the form of peanut. The plant continues to grow and flower, eventually producing some 40 or more mature pods.

   From planting to harvesting, the growing cycle takes about four to five months, depending on the type or variety. The peanut is a nitrogen-fixing plant; its roots form modules, which absorb nitrogen from the air, and provide enrichment and nutrition to the plant and soils.

The Cashew

   A native of the Americas, the cashew is one of the more unusual nuts we eat, for several reasons. First, it grows on the bottom of a pear-shaped fruit called the "cashew apple," hanging there like an afterthought, though the nut develops before the apple.

   Second, the cashew is surrounded by a shell, which contains highly toxic liquid used in industry. (The cashew is cousin to poison ivy, and poison sumac and oak, as well as mango and pistachio.)

   Finally, though American in origin, the cashew tree is not a primary commercial product in any American country. India, more than 7500 miles as the crow flies from Brazil, the cashew's homeland, leads the world in production, with Mozambique and Tanzania close behind. The tree also grows in Kenya and Nigeria, as well as Malaysia and Thailand.

   Both the Portuguese and the Spanish carried the cashew to their colonies in the late 1500's, the Portuguese to Goa, India, the Spanish to the Philippines.        The cashew tree is an amazingly hearty evergreen tree which thrives in the heat of the tropics. It grows wild or can be cultivated, with equal ease. Growing up to 50 feet tall, with crooked branches and a rough-barked sinuous trunk, the cashew puts forth perfumed, yellow-pink flowers.

   Cashew nuts are lower in fat than most other nuts. They supply fiber as well as protein and B Vitamins. The fruit itself, not widely eaten outside of Brazil and Asia, is remarkably high in Vitamin C.

The Almond

   The almond is botanically a stone fruit related to the cherry, the plum, and the peach. Almonds are mentioned as far back in history as the Bible. They were a prized ingredient in breads served to Egypt's pharos. Their exact ancestry in unknown, but almonds are thought to have originated in China and Central Asia. 
   Explorers ate almonds while traveling the "Silk Road" between Asia and the Mediterranean. Before long, almond trees flourished in the Mediterranean, especially in Spain and Italy.

   The almond tree was brought to California from Spain in the mid-1700's by the Franciscan Padres. The moist, cool weather of the coastal missions, however, did not provide optimum growing conditions. It wasn't until the following century that trees were successfully planted inland. By the 1870's, research and cross-breeding had developed several of today's prominent almond varieties. By the turn of the 20th century, the almond industry was firmly established in the Sacramento and San Joaquin areas of California's great Central Valley.

   Throughout history, almonds have maintained religious, ethnic and social significance. The Bible's "Book of Numbers" tells the story of Aaron's rod that blossomed and bore almonds, giving the almond the symbolism of divine approval. 
   The Romans showered newlyweds with almonds as a fertility charm. Today, Americans give guests at weddings a bag of sugared almonds, representing children, happiness, romance, good health and fortune. In Sweden, cinnamon-flavored rice pudding with an almond hidden inside is a Christmas custom. Find it, and good fortune is yours for a year.

   The earliest varieties of almonds were found in China carried by traders down the ancient silk road to Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East. Nestled between the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Pacific Coast Ranges is California's fertile Central Valley, home to one of the oldest and most beautiful flowering fruit trees. Unlike other flowering fruit trees that bear edible fruit, this tree's "pearl" is the delicious nut found inside the fruit, the almond.

   The almond is one of the most versatile nuts in the world. We eat many varieties in many diverse forms. Almonds are delicious alone as a nutritious snack, and they are a prime ingredient in home kitchens and in food manufacturing. Almonds enhance virtually every food they grace with their distinctive taste and satisfying crunch.

   California is the only place in North America where almonds are grown commercially. In the past 30 years, California's almond yield has quadrupled. More than 450,000 acres in the lush San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys are under almond cultivation, stretching 400 miles between Bakersfield and Red Bluff, California.

   Almonds are California's largest tree nut crop in total dollar value and acreage. They rank as the seventh largest U.S. food export. Approximately 6,000 almond growers produce 100 percent of the commercial domestic supply and more than 70 percent of worldwide production. Over 90 nations import California almonds. Overseas, Germany is the largest market for almonds, consuming about 25 percent of the export crop, followed by Japan at about 12 percent. Other major importers include the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, India and Spain. The Pacific Rim nations are a rapidly growing market for California almonds.

The Pecan

   The history of pecans can be traced back to the 16th century. The only major tree nut that grows naturally in North America, the pecan is considered the one of the most valuable North American nut species. The name "pecan" is a Native American word of Algonquin origin that was used to describe "all nuts requiring a stone to crack."

   Originating in central and eastern North America and the river valleys of Mexico, pecans were widely used by pre-colonial residents. Pecans were favored because they were accessible to waterways, easier to shell than other North American nut species and of course, for their great taste!

   Because wild pecans were readily available, many Native American tribes in the U.S. and Mexico used the wild pecan as a major food source during autumn. It is speculated that pecans were used to produce a fermented intoxicating drink called "Powcohicora" (where the word "hickory" comes from). It also is said that Native Americans first cultivated the pecan tree.


Presidents Washington and Jefferson Loved Pecans, Too!

   One of the first known cultivated pecan tree plantings, by Spanish colonists and Franciscans in northern Mexico, appears to have taken place in the late 1600's or early 1700's. These plantings are documented to around 1711 - about 60 years before the first recorded planting by U.S. colonists.

   The first U.S. pecan planting took place in Long Island, NY in 1772. By the late 1700's, pecans from the northern range reached the English portion of the Atlantic Seaboard and were planted in the gardens of easterners such as George Washington (1775) and Thomas Jefferson (1779). Settlers were also planting pecans in community gardens along the Gulf Coast at this time.

   In the late 1770's, the economic potential of pecans was realized by French and Spanish colonists settling along the Gulf of Mexico. By 1802, the French were exporting pecans to the West Indies - although it is speculated that pecans were exported to the West Indies and Spain earlier by Spanish colonists in northern Mexico. By 1805, advertisements in London said that the pecan was "...a tree meriting attention as a cultivated crop."

The Birth of an Industry

   New Orleans, located near the mouth of the Mississippi River, became very important to the marketing of pecans. The city had a natural market as well as an avenue for redistributing pecans to other parts of the U.S. and the world.    The New Orleans market gained local interest in planting orchards, which stimulated the adaptation of vegetative propagation techniques and led to the demand for trees that produce superior nuts. 
   During the 1700's and the early 1800's, the pecan became an item of commerce for the American colonists and the pecan industry was born. (In San Antonio, the wild pecan harvest was more valuable than popular row crops like cotton!)

   Pecan groves (trees established by natural forces) and orchards (trees planted by man) consisted of diverse nuts with various sizes, shapes, shell characteristics, flavor, fruiting ages and ripening dates. In the midst of this variability, there was the occasional discovery of a wild tree with unusually large, thin-shelled nuts, which were in high demand by customers.

In 1822, Abner Landrum of South Carolina discovered a pecan budding technique, which provided a way to graft plants derived from superior wild selections (or, in other words, to unite with a growing plant by placing in close contact). However, this invention was lost or overlooked until the 1880's when, in 1846, an African-American slave gardener from Louisiana (named Antoine) successfully propagated pecans by grafting a superior wild pecan to seedling pecan stocks. Antoine's clone was named "Centennial" because it won the Best Pecan Exhibited award at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.    His 1876 planting, which eventually became 126 Centennial trees, was the first official planting of improved pecans.

   The successful use of grafting techniques led to grafted orchards of superior genotypes and proved to be a milestone for the pecan industry. The adoption of these techniques was slow and had little commercial impact - until the 1880's when Louisiana and Texas nurserymen learned of pecan grafting and began propagation on a commercial level.

The Pistachio

   Probably native to Iran and adjacent areas, pistachios have been carbon-dated to 6760 BC. This nut of antiquity is one of two mentioned in the Old Testament. Pistachios are said to have featured in the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, built about 700 BC by King Nebuchadnezzar to cheer up his wife, Amytis, who found the flat Babylonian landscape dreary.

   Pistachios grow well in arid countries such as Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan and Iran. They also turn up in Pakistan and India, as well as in Mediterranean Italy, Tunisia and Greece. In the last 30 years or so, the pistachio has found new homes in California, New Mexico and Arizona. The rugged pistachio, cousin to the mango, cashew, sumac and poison oak, thrives in heat and grows well in rocky, dry soil. It reaches a height of 25 feet and its holly-like leaves grow in threes, its nuts in clusters resembling grapes.

   The pistachio's uniqueness, certainly among nuts, is its green color. Food historian Waverly Root has asserted that the green of the nut opened up the possibility of inserting the color green naturally into desserts, an area of cuisine previously green-deprived.

   The early people of Persia used several nuts in desserts, the Arabs copied them, and the Europeans under Arab control in Spain during the Middle Ages in turn copied them. So green crept into after dinner pleasures. Most familiar of these today is probably pistachio ice cream and pistachio nougat candy.

Pistachios are high in iron and potassium and are about 20 percent protein.