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Chinese Pistache: A Gawky Adolescent Grows Up

"You have got to be kidding."

A decade ago I was looking at a crooked Pistachia chinensis sapling, while the nursery owner praised its attributes. Although it was a gawky adolescent, he promised it would turn into a beautiful rounded shade tree with orange, red, and crimson fall colors. It was drought and heat tolerant and unbothered by disease or insects. It had extremely hard wood, and the deep roots would help it stand firm during storms.

"Nobody wants it," he said. "They don't know what they are missing." Now he was appealing to the rescuer side of me. The plant was doomed to die, withered in the back with the other rejects if I didn't buy it. How could I let that happen?

So I paid a few dollars for the Chinese pistache tree and brought it home. It looked like a tall weed, and my family was skeptical when I planted it in a place of honor down in the lower front lawn, near the entrance to our property.

For a few years I drove past it with an embarrassed look. I pruned it a little, trying to improve its shape. The tree grew over two feet a year and now, finally, is beginning to fulfill the promise made by the nursery owner. A recent photo shows the lustrous green color of my Chinese Pistache tree.Here is a closer look at the leaves. This photo, taken last October, shows the beautiful fall foliage.

My tree is a close relative of the pistachio tree that produces the edible nuts many of us love. The Chinese pistache tree produces fruit which is inedible to humans but beloved by birds. Every other spring, female trees produce inconspicuous greenish flowers, followed by reddish purple berries, most of which are infertile. If fertilized by the pollen of a male tree, the berries will become black. Another good thing is that Chinese pistache pollen is non allergic. My tree has never produced berries, so I am thinking it is male, though maybe it is still too young to produce fruit. Male trees are reported to have better mature form, and many of the Chinese pistache trees available in nurseries are male. So I think that is what I have. Eventually I will know for certain. 

A member of the sumac family, Chinese pistache trees are adaptable to a variety of soils and will grow in hardiness zones 6-9. They can grow up to forty feet tall and wide, and the oval to rounded crown provides medium to filtered shade. It is a very long lived tree. The average Chinese pistache will live over fifty years, but some specimens have lived for hundreds of years.

The Chinese pistache is on a lot of 'Recommended' lists for good reason, but be aware: in some parts of the country, particularly Texas, it is considered invasive. Fortunately, that is not a problem for me, and I am happy to see my gawky adolescent grow up!


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Reader Comments (23)

I've never seen this tree before. Love its delicate foliage. You should be proud of yourself, Deb - you saw a swan in the ugly duckling!

July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTatyana

We saw these trees all over the Central Valley of California when we lived there. It's so warm there, that many trees don't put on a very impressive fall display (most of our maples went straight from green to brown), but these trees never failed to impress. They are thought to be somewhat invasive here, but I still see quite a few planted around, and they really are lovely trees. So glad this tree finally showed its potential to you!

July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCurbstone Valley Farm

What a spectacular tree, and I love the fact that you rescued and nurtured something no one else would buy. Your faith in what it could be and patience to watch it grow is being rewarded handsomely!

July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

ugly duckling for sure.

July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGreggo

Dear Tree Rescuer, You have a very happy looking tree there. :) It looks a little like my neem tree.

July 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOne

Such a lovely tree and so fortunate you brought it home! I'd never heard of it either. I am, however, used to the nursery people sometimes giving us things outright, things that look so forlorn, no one would ever buy them. We have a garden full of "orphans".

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCathy

Hi Deb,

Lovely tree, I'm glad it's finally maturing for you... That's the only problem with trees; it can take so long before you can fully appreciate their beauty :)

Well worth the wait though!

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

It really rewarded you for getting a good home! My pear tree was such a 'reject' tree too. A large crook at the base, but it straightened out as well.

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

I love this tree and have one next to our patio.

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPhillip

That was worth the wait Debs, that's a gorgeous specimen!

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark and Gaz

We have quite a few of these in New Mexico--since most of our native trees turn gold in the fall, the pistache's vivid reds really stand out beautifully. I didn't know it was related to the sumac, but just from your photos they are definitely kissin' cousins!

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStacy

I love these trees! There are a lot of them around here, and you are right, the fall color is absolutely gorgeous. Enjoy yours.

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMasha

That is a really beautiful looking tree; you have been rewarded for your taking pity on the ugly duckling. The European pistachio (again not the one that produces the nuts) is a great small tree here - I don't have any but I would like to put some on the boundary to break up the hedge which is a bit too clipped for a country setting. Christina

July 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

What a beautiful tree this turned out to be. Love trees that add colorful foliage to our all to be brief Autumn in Alabama. :)

July 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChris

The nursery owner was right! It looks great no matter what color leaves it has on.

July 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBom

What a beautiful tree! I am also a shameless rescuer of plants although I've learned the hard way to rein myself in. I wish I had space for it. :o)

July 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCasa Mariposa

The nursery owner was right, it did turn out to be a beautiful tree! Both the summer and fall foliage color looks great. I love that vivid orange, so colorful.

July 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersweetbay

When it comes to gardening patience is a virtue. Your gawky adolescent has turned into a handsome tree indeed!

July 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

This tree was obviously worth the wait till it came into it's own. Lovely!

July 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHelen at Summer House

Good for you for saving the day and bringing that scrawny tree home! He's a showstopper now!

July 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHanni

Your tree is really beautiful now and also when it has its autumn dress on. Rescuing plants is so rewarding when they put down roots and show that they are happy in their new home, you can be very proud !!

July 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPauline Mulligan

I think we can say, looking at the stupendous autumn colour, that you are justly rewarded for your noble action!

July 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Webber

Any tree with pretty fall colors is a favorite of mine. I've never really heard of this tree, so I'm sure it's hardy in Ohio. My summer Poinsettia is an annual, but not commonly found in nurseries. I've grown them from seed before, but the bunnies ate mine this year so I bought plants. Love them!

July 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobinL
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