The Chinese Pistache Tree
History, Planting and Care
My ol’ mama used to say, "If you
can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all!"
At one time, I heard some folks bad?mouthing one of the very
best trees for this area ? ? the pistachio. Regardless of
nay-sayers, this tree ranks in the top 5 trees that are recommended
for this area.
Controversy arises over the Pistache because
of its difficult adolescent years. After planting, some trees
grow long and lanky for the first few "adolescent"
years. No person, and certainly no plant, is perfect. But
if the good outweighs the bad, the plant is a keeper. The
Chinese Pistache IS a keeper! Not only will it be around,
it will be recommended for many years to come.
A "buggy whip"? shaped Pistache can
be modified with proper pruning in January or February. You
should try to develop an umbrella framework with a trunk 6
feet tall with 4 to 6 spoke?like branches growing upward.
To accomplish this, look on the trunk for a spot about 5 to
6 feet above the ground where you’ll see a whorl of
small, twiggy branches. Cut the top out of the tree about
3 to 4 inches above this whorl of branches.
In the absence of any branches on the trunk,
simply cut the top out at the 6-foot level. What will remain
is the " buggy whip" cut into half. After the topping,
the tree will force all its energy into branching. Four to
6 branches will appear near the cut and begin growth.
If you have a 2- to 5-year old Pistache which
has not naturally branched and is "long?and?lanky",
the tree will require more drastic pruning. In January or
February, prune to the structure of a 6?foot?trunk?with?several?spoke?branches.
Do not try to develop a central leader (one central trunk).
To more quickly obtain a thicker, stronger
trunk after pruning, use the "trashy trunk" method
of pruning. The "trashy trunk" refers to leaving
all branches and leaves on the trunk from top to bottom. The
extra foliage and branches produce much needed energy for
the trunk. The results are a greatly expanded trunk for greater
strength and vigor. As the branches near the bottom of the
trunk become 1- inch in diameter, they can be removed without
permanently scarring the trunk. After the second year of growth,
always keep the height of the tree 2/3 in foliage and 1/3
in bare trunk.
Growing a Pistache is a kind of a historical
and religious experience. The name comes from Persian "pistah"
which is the name of the nut?bearing pistachio tree. There
is no poison associated with ANY PART of the Pistache tree
(how many other trees can you say that about?). In fact, most
Pistache species produce resins which have been used by man
since 50 A.D. The Bible is full of references to the Pistache.
Pistache trees, mixed with scrub oak, comprise the thorn forests
of Asia Minor-- such as the one in which Absalom rode wildly
and was caught by the hair (II Samuel 18). The terebinth tree
mentioned in the Bible—the tree that provided shade
to nomadic wanderers-- is a Pistache.
Of course, many people think of the Pistache
nut when you say the word Pistache. The Chinese Pistache tree
recommended for planting in this area can be used as a rootstock
for the edible nutted Pistache. However, both male and female
varieties of the edible Pistache are needed, and since sexes
are separate, several trees would be required to insure successful
nut production. The edible, nutted type of tree could be killed
by severe winters of below 15 degrees F. Even if Texans could
produce Pistache nuts, the edible nutted tree is inferior
to the Chinese Pistache in terms of shade and ornamental features.
The edible cousin of the Chinese Pistache is quite famous.
In fact, in the book of Genesis, the sons of Jacob carried
"nuts" with them into Egypt. It is believed that
these nuts were pistachios.
Pistachio nuts were also known to be a royal favorite of the
Queen of Sheba.
What are the advantages of the Pistache tree
as an ornamental? First, it’s a long?lived tree. Under
favorable conditions, which we have in this area, pistachio
trees live for centuries; in the Kerman region of Iran, a
700?year?old tree is still standing. Unfortunately, Texas
is not that old, but there are trees still thriving at the
former U.S.D.A. Agriculture Research Center (located at South
Flores and March Street) which were planted in 1940. The trees
are doing well with no care and have produced a 40 x 40- foot
canopy of shade.
After the tree gets through its "adolescent"
lanky years, it develops an oval to rounded form with an umbrella?like
crown somewhat similar to the American elm, but much smaller
in stature. Unlike many of the trees sold in this area, the
Pistache is an extremely tough and durable tree. It is very
drought resistant, tolerates extreme heat-- from a near desert?like
atmosphere to drying winds and low humidity. It is also very
The tree is disease and insect free. Have you
ever seen any foliage disease on Pistache such as what you
see defoliating ash and sycamore trees? Have you ever seen
any webworm in Pistache such as you see in most other trees
in the area? Have you seen borers kill Pistache as they do
cottonwoods? Have you ever seen limbs blow out of Pistache
because of the weak?wooded nature of the tree? No ? ? I think
not! And you never will!
Yes, the dreaded cotton root rot fungus WILL
kill Pistache ? ? it will probably kill some rocks too! If
we only recommended species of trees that are resistant to
cotton root rot, this area of Texas would only have 2 or 3
types, none of which would provide fall color. The root rot
problem only occurs if trees are planted in areas with poor
drainage or over-watered during establishment.
What about the berries? Some "yapping"
malcontents indicate that "all of those berries falling
from trees (that happen to be female) are going to be a horrendous
mess!" The vast majority of those seeds, which are about
1/4 -inch in diameter, are sterile. If the tree produced enough
berries to drop a thick mat of berries on the ground, you
could mow them away with a lawn mower in about 30 seconds!
The fruit is actually described as an asset-- scarlet at first,
then turning a reddish purple, and wonderfully attractive
to birds. All of the red berries are sterile. The relatively
few fertile black berries are the bird’s choice ---
keeping out-of-place seedlings to a minimum. Female Pistache
trees are biennial bearers, producing every other year. So,
even if you want to fuss about the berries and deprive the
birds, you will have that opportunity ONLY once every 2 years!
The Chinese Pistache is a medium?sized shade tree that is
tolerant of our rocky, alkaline soils. It possesses a hard,
durable wood, is virtually insect and disease free and will
grow 2 to 3 feet a year. It displays spectacular fall color
every autumn. Overall, it's one of the finest medium shade
trees we have for this area.