Pistacia chinensis — Chinese Pistache
Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis) provides blockbuster drama of vibrant orange and red autumn leaves. Sun-hardy with only occasional water requirements once established, this ornamental tree is a real hit in home gardens and streetscapes.
This China native grows 30-60 ft. tall after many years. Because of its equally wide canopy, the Chinese pistache is a good choice for a shade tree, especially when planted on the southwest side of a one-story residence. Being deciduous, it will provide winter sun once the leaves drop.
The pinnate leaves are about a foot long, each consisting of 10 to16 narrow leaflets. While its leaves are lightly fragrant and an attractive dark green during the summer, their primary season of interest is in fall when they turn brilliant colors that rival East coast autumn foliage.
Chinese pistache can be used as a single specimen or along a driveway lining one or both sides for a spectacular display. While related to the pistachio tree, this species does not produce nuts. However, if a male Chinese pistache is planted nearby, a female tree will develop clumps of ornamental, inedible bright red berries in fall that turn blue-purple in winter and are a source of food for birds. Not all trees for sale in nurseries are labeled either as male or female.
To ensure that a selection will be fruitless and not drop berries, choose a named male cultivar such as ‘Keith Davey.’ It may also be a more desirable tree where space is limited with its lower 35-ft. height and crown diameter of 30 ft.
Chinese pistache has moderate growth and is relatively long-lived. It tolerates many soil types and water conditions, even poor alkaline soils and nearby lawns as long as the soil is well-drained. Its deep, non-aggressive roots make it a sturdy tree in the wind and a safe selection near patios and sidewalks, although berry drop from female trees may become a nuisance..
Because a young Chinese pistache tends to be gawky and often lacks a strong central leader, it may benefit from structural pruning in its early years. As it matures, it develops a rounded crown with an umbrella-like canopy. Not only is an established Chinese pistache heat and drought-tolerant—perfect for Sonoma County’s hot, dry summers—it is winter-hardy to 20º, pest-free and fire resistant.
One note of caution: Chinese pistache is one of a number of trees susceptible to Verticillium wilt, a soil-borne fungus. Therefore, proper care is important, i.e., plant in well-drained soil and fertilize only as needed. If Verticillium wilt has been a persistent problem in your yard, you should forgo this tree.
Because of its many attributes, Pistacia chinensis can be found in residential gardens and public lands throughout Sonoma County, town plazas and city streets in many neighborhoods.