By Brent Dennis
Few deciduous trees pack the multi-seasonal punch of the Chinese pistache (Pistachia chinensis). As a highly adaptable, specimen quality, medium-sized shade tree, the Chinese pistache is extremely tough and tolerant of both urban and rural conditions.
Reaching a mature height of 60 feet with an umbrella-like canopy spread of up to 30 feet, this is an ideal size to provide shade, enframement and background for single-story homes. The tree’s most striking claim to horticultural fame is its brilliant range of red to fiery red-orange autumn color, making it a reliable fall favorite. Scores of healthy Chinese pistache are showcased along El Dorado Hills Boulevard and in many community parks and business districts.
Chinese pistache trees prefer full sun settings and require only a moderate amount of water, but will not tolerate “wet feet.” If the desired site for a new Chinese pistache tree possesses heavy clay soil and has poor drainage, it is best to consider a raised bed setting with at least 6 to 12 inches of good loamy topsoil cover. Newly planted trees should be mulched immediately and early springtime light, slow-release fertilization is suggested to give your tree a healthy start.
The tree’s deep green foliage remains attractive during the growing season and leaves are medium to fine-textured, an asset in smaller landscapes. The tree is known for its genetic resistance to insect and disease problems. Chinese pistache trees possess a very acceptable growth rate for such a long-lived species, with 2 to 3 feet of growth possible annually with good care. The tree’s hard, durable wood is also very decay resistant which helps protect the tree from wind and vandal damage or injury. Trees are usually well-established after two or three growing seasons.
Native to China and the Philippines, the Chinese pistache is dioecious, with separate male and female trees. Small white flowers appear in spring and on female trees, berry-shaped fruit develop in clusters, turning bright red to reddish-purple in the fall and persist into the winter. While inedible for humans, the fruit is a delicacy for native birds. “Pearl Street” and “Keith Davey” are good varieties of male forms.
With time and proper care, the Chinese pistache tree will become more beautiful and provide outstanding year-round characteristics. Its canopy develops slowly and takes four to six years to mature. Prune to shape and remove dead wood in the winter when it has lost most of its leaves. If available for a newly planted tree, drip irrigation is effective for the first two or three growing seasons, until the tree is established. The Chinese pistache tree is an excellent choice and investment for your landscape that will bring you many years of colorful seasons and comfortable shade.
Brent Dennis is a landscape architects and garden designer. He currently serves as the El Dorado Hills Community Services District general manager.