Plant Chinese Pistache, A Beautiful, Tough Tree

Chinese Pistache Tree
Photo: Mark Miller Photos / Getty Images

Smart people plant Chinese pistache, a versatile tree that can fit in most gardens, thrive in most conditions, and provide gorgeous fall color. Unsurprisingly, it's native to China and Taiwan. Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis) is also a cousin of the pistachio tree (Pistacia vera) that gives us those delicious green nuts—both trees are in the cashew family. Unfortunately, the berries of Chinese pistache are delicious only to wildlife, but while Chinese pistache won't sate your physical hunger, it will satisfy your spiritual yearning for a beautiful shade tree in the yard. You can plant Chinese pistache by the street or along a driveway, in the middle of the lawn, or at the edge of a courtyard or patio to shade you and your guests. City governments love this tough tree because it can thrive in constrained spaces and with little watering.

About Chinese Pistache

Chinese pistache is a deciduous tree with arching, pinnate leaves that will remind you of a hickory, pecan, or black locust tree, but at a much more manageable size. The roots are well-behaved, too, making it a safe choice near blacktop and concrete. The grayish-brown bark becomes textured and flaky as the tree matures, exposing orangey inner bark when chipped away. We have an extensive list of why you should plant a Chinese pistache this fall, especially if you want a tree that:

  • Doesn't get too big (usually grows to 35 feet tall, sometimes as much as 50 feet tall, and about as wide with a rounded shape)
  • Grows in almost any well-drained soil, whether loamy, sandy, or clay
  • Is suited to most of the South (USDA Zones 6–9)
  • Provides light, dappled shade that grass will grow in
  • Has no significant pests, so you don't have to spray
  • Grows quickly, so you actually have time to enjoy it
  • Tolerates heat and drought, so you won't die at the end of a hose
  • Consistently develops spectacular fall colors of scarlet, orange, and yellow

Growing Chinese Pistache

Plant Chinese pistache in full sun, preferably in the fall so that the roots can get established over winter. (A Chinese pistache planted in shade can grow to be ungainly and lopsided). Dig a hole as deep as the tree's root ball and three times as wide. Place the tree in the hole and backfill with soil so it is level with the top of the root ball. Add two or three inches of mulch around the tree, keeping the mulch from touching the trunk. Don't build a mulch volcano, which can rot bark, encourage pests, and cause roots to grow above the soil level. Spread the mulch evenly, extending as far out as the branches of the sapling.

Water deeply when the soil is dry for the first year; this tree does not like to have constantly wet feet. Young Chinese pistache trees can be a bit gangly and take a while to develop their attractive umbrella shape. If pruning is needed to encourage symmetry, prune branches back in late winter. Otherwise, just remove dead or diseased branches whenever necessary.

Varieties of Chinese Pistache

Chinese pistache trees can be either male or female. The greenish flowers appear in spring but are not showy. Only females bear fruit, which some people find a little messy. In this case, the solution is to plant a male selection called 'Keith Davey,' which is available through a number of online nurseries. 'Keith Davey' turns a fiery orange in fall, gradually turning to a deep scarlet later in the season. Plain old Chinese pistache is widely available at home and garden centers, Heritage Seedlings, or Forest Farm. Whichever pistache you plant, you'll enjoy this attractive shade tree for years to come.

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