Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis)

Chinese Pistache, Chinese Pistachio

You know the age-old story of the person who was somewhat awkward in junior high and everyone overlooks them, but then they come into their own and find themselves and they are just amazing? Well, that is the sad story of the Chinese pistache. If you have a garden with some room that needs a tree to give your landscape three-season interest, Pistacia chinensis is a much-forgotten tree that glows up into a stunner.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Pistacia chinensis, the Chinese pistache (Chinese: 黄連木; pinyin: huángliánmù), is a small to medium-sized tree in the genus Pistacia in the cashew family Anacardiaceae. This species is planted as a street tree in temperate areas worldwide due to its attractive fruit and autumn foliage.

Its native range is on hill and mountain forests on rocky soils at 100–3,600 m (330–11,810 ft) above sea level. It is found in Mainland China (excluding the far north and the far west) and Taiwan.

It is hardy, can withstand harsh conditions and poor quality soils, and grows up to 20 m (66 ft). The leaves are deciduous, alternate, pinnate, 20–25 cm long, with 10 or 12 leaflets, the terminal leaflet usually absent. The flowers are produced in panicles 15–20 cm (5.9 – 7.9 in) long at the ends of the branches; it is dioecious, with separate male and female plants.

The fruit is a small red drupe, turning blue when ripe, containing a single seed.

Chinese pistache grows best in full sun, being intolerant of shade; it is the most frost-tolerant species of Pistacia, tolerating temperatures down to about -25 °C, yet it is most highly regarded in warm climates. It is planted for its impressive fall colors, which develop at least as far south as Orlando, Florida.

II. How to Grow and Care

The Chinese pistache, for such a beautiful tree, is incredibly easy to care for save one labor-intensive chore: pruning. It requires a certain style of pruning to create its beautiful form later in life. Other than that most of the care is relatively straightforward and not unlike any other tree.

Sunlight

Planting your tree in a spot that receives full sun will ensure its at its healthiest and let it grow at a steady rate while producing an ample amount of its attractive fruit. You will notice a marked fall back in growth if it is planted in shadier conditions.

Temperature and Humidity

Hardiness to the warm dry weather is the much-appreciated trait of the Chinese pistache that allows it to be used in arid climates like the American Southwest with ease. Unfortunately, it is not incredibly cold hardy and will only tolerate mild winters and light freezing temperatures. If placed in the colder reaches of its habitable zones consider a sheltered area out of direct winds. Strictly adhering to the USDA zones of 6 through 9 is a good idea even in micro-climates with this species.

Watering

The Chinese pistache is an ideal candidate to plant if you are considering xeriscaping or planning a water-wise garden. It is highly drought tolerant and does not need supplemental watering past the point of establishment. At planting, you will want to set up a watering routine for the first two years to get your tree to establish a good strong root system. Help this along by mulching around the base of the tree at a depth of 2 to 3 inches out to the dripline, but without touching the trunk of the tree. This will enable the tree to hold moisture longer between waterings. When watering a good rule of thumb is 1 gallon per inch of trunk diameter measured at chest height for the first two years. Taper this off and then let Mother Nature take charge.

Soil

While the species is somewhat adaptable when it comes to soil conditions it will benefit from being planted in an area with good moisture content, rich in organics, and well-draining soil. It is very adaptable in regard to soil pH.

Fertilizing

Chinese Pistache is already a fast-growing species and does not need much feeding. But you can feed trees with lagging growth with a nitrogen-based fertilizer if needed. Still, we recommend testing the soil first to find the correct NPK formulation to help fix the problem.

Planting Instructions

The Chinese Pistache grows roots that go deep into the ground and do not spread aggressively. Hence, planting close to a sidewalk, driveway, or patio where you need shade is ideal.

But we recommend not planting your Pistache chinensis in a low-lying or marshy area as it does not like soggy soil conditions. Another thing is not to plant your tree too close to utility lines or under electric power.

Once you have a perfect spot, dig a hole as deep as the root ball but three times wider. When the root ball is in the center, backfill the hole and press it down. You can then build up the soil to the root ball’s height and water deeply.

Then add a layer of mulch to help retain moisture and protect the roots.

Pruning

When you purchase your tree from the nursery your plant most likely will not have the preparatory pruning required to establish aesthetically pleasing trunk and branch structure. That will be your job and you will see at first glance that the Chinese pistache looks a bit… gangly. You will need to train it and give it a make-over that will take a few years to come together, but it will be worth it.

On first inspection, you will notice your young tree will most likely be all trunk and few branches, and what branches there are will be bunched together. You are going to work to develop a single trunk and multiple lateral branches.

Your first step is to pick one of the branches to be the trunk, another to be a branch and then remove the rest. Allow your awkward tree to grow up a bit about 18 inches or so and remove the top of the trunk forcing the trunk to develop more branches. Once another bunch has grown, pick two and repeat in a circular fashion until you have the desired rounded crown.

Propagation

The easiest method of propagating Chinese pistache is by taking softwood cuttings.

You will need a sharp knife, rooting hormone, a small pot, a soilless potting mix (sand, peat, and vermiculite are a great mix), and some water.

  • Take a sharp knife and remove a piece of soft green stem approximately 4 to 6 inches long just below the point where leaves are attached to the node. Pinch off the leaves on the lower half of the cutting.
  • Dip the cut end of your cutting in the rooting compound. Tap off any extra, avoiding brushing off extra powder when the cutting is planted; make a hole in the potting mix with your finger or a pencil. Place the cutting two inches deep into the potting mix. Pack the potting mix firmly around the base of each cutting, ensuring there is no air between the stem and the mix. 
  • Water your cutting and let it drain. Cover the cutting to retain moisture and place it in bright light but indirect light. Inspect your cutting daily. Dampen the potting mix if it begins to dry. Roots should begin to develop in two to three months.

Pests and Diseases

Luckily the Chinese pistache is, for the most part, free from serious pests and disease. One disease that occasionally infects the tree is Verticillium wilt. If your area is known to harbor the fungus or you have had issues with it in your garden, you might consider another tree as there is no cure for this nasty disease, and prevention is the best course of action. You can help prevent it by properly cleaning your garden tools with Lysol, bleach, or alcohol solutions.

III. Types of Chinese Pistache

While an excellent tree in its own right, the nursery trade has created several cultivars of Pistacia chinensis to highlight some of its already outstanding attributes. Here is a list of some of the more popular cultivars:

  • Pistacia chinensis  ‘Sarah’s Radiance’ is a grafted cultivar that makes an excellent shade tree with astounding fall color.
  • Pistacia chinensis ‘Keith Davey’ is a non-fruiting male cultivar of the species that exhibits insanely bright orange fall foliage.
  • Pistacia chinensis ‘Pearl Street’ is a very fast-growing seedless variety with an upright form.

IV. The Pros and Cons 

Pros

Fiery Foliage

One of our favorite advantages of Chinese Pistache trees is their stunning fall color. These trees put on a spectacular show each year, with leaves changing to shades of orange, red, and yellow. This can provide a beautiful focal point in your landscape and add curb appeal to your property.

Hardy and Adaptable

Another great plus for Chinese Pistache trees is that they are very hardy and adaptable. They can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, from sandy to clay, and they are also drought-tolerant once established. This makes them an excellent choice for North Texans who want a low-maintenance tree. Speaking of…

Easy to Care For

Another plus for Chinese Pistache trees is that they are relatively low-maintenance. They are tolerant of a wide range of soil types and can withstand periods of drought once they are established. These trees also have few pests or diseases, so you will not have to worry about spending time and money on treatment.

Longevity

The Chinese Pistache lifespan can last for a long time – up to 100 years or more. This makes them a great investment for your landscape and means you will not have to replant as often as you would with other tree species.

Chinese Pistache Tree Problems

However, there are also some potential drawbacks to consider before planting a Chinese Pistache tree.

Oversized

One of the biggest is that these trees can get quite large – up to 40 feet tall and 50 feet wide at maturity. This means they may not be suitable for smaller yards or gardens. Chinese Pistache typically need at least 15 feet of space from other trees and structures to reach their full potential.

Girdlinge Roots

Another potential issue with Chinese Pistache trees is that their root system can choke itself off. Girdling roots are roots that circle around the trunk and prevent the flow of water and nutrients up the stem, and sugars down the stem. This causes major stress on the tree and Chinese Pistache is the worst offender!

If you are landscaping around a below-ground pool, find all you need to know in our recent post, How to Plant a Tree Near a Pool: The Ultimate Guide.

Messy

Finally, these trees can be messy. The female trees produce a lot of fruit that can attract animals such as birds and squirrels and make a mess on your lawn or patio. The fruits are also sticky and can be a pain to pick up and dispose of.

Susceptible to Disease

Finally, it is important to note that Chinese Pistache trees are susceptible to conditions such as verticillium wilt and root rot, among others. What are they?

Verticillium wilt is a disease that affects the tree’s vascular system, causing the leaves to turn yellow and eventually drop off. Root rot is another fungal disease that can cause the roots of your Chinese Pistache tree to decay.

While both of these diseases can be treated, they can be difficult to control once they take hold. As such, you may want to consider another tree species if you are concerned about disease susceptibility.

V. Uses and Benefits 

Chinese pistache is a rather small tree that, due to its size, is perfect as an ornamental specimen in gardens. Its fall foliage is exceptionally beautiful and a good reason to select it for landscaping. Additionally, this plant is highly drought tolerant. Other drought-resistant choices to plant with Chinese pistache could be Rosemary, Century plant, or Fan palm.

It is also used in classical Chinese garden design.

Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis) Details

Common name Chinese Pistache, Chinese Pistachio
Botanical name Pistacia chinensis
Plant type Perennial
Hardiness zone 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Medium
Harvest time Fall
Height 30 ft. 0 in. - 35 ft. 0 in.
Width 30 ft. 0 in. - 35 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Green
Leaf color Green