How to Grow and Care for Chinese Pistache

A Chinese pistache showing its amazing fall colors in Japan.

Toshihiro Nakajima/ Getty Images

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.

You will marvel at its dark green foliage, red fruit that turns a midnight blue, attractive exfoliating bark, and dazzling fall colors, medium to large size with a full canopy, and pollution resistance all add up to make this a fantastic tree with little downside other than it takes some time to come into its own.

Common Name Chinese Pistache
Botanical Name Pistacia chinensis
Family Name Anacardiaceae
 Plant Type Deciduous tree
 Mature Size 30 - 35 ft. tall, 20 - 30 ft. wide 
 Sun Exposure Full sun 
 Soil Type Moist, rich, well-drained soil 
 Soil pH Adaptable
 Bloom Time April
 Flower Color Yellow, Orange, or Red
 Hardiness Zones USDA 6-9 
 Native Area China to Phillipines

Chinese Pistache 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.

Warning

Chinese pistache is classified as an invasive species in some areas. However, they are sexed trees, and will only spread pervasively if there are male and female trees near each other. It is usually safe to plant the male trees, which should be sourced from a reputable nursery. Male trees do not produce any fruits and female trees will not have any petals.

Light

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.

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.

Water

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.

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.

Fertilizer

Already a fast growing tree, you should not see much a need to give your tree fertilizer. If your Chinese pistache seems to be lagging a bit in its growth, first test the soil to determine what, if any, nutrient deficiencies are present in your soil and then apply a fertilizer with the proper NPK formulation to fix the issue.

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.

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 they 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.

Common Pests and Plant 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.

FAQ
  • Is the fruit of the Chinese pistache edible?

    No. The fruit of the Chinese pistache is not very tasty and not the same fruit as the pistachio that we love to snack on. This nut comes from the Pistacia vera tree.

  • How fast does a Chinese pistache grow?

    In the right location a Chinese pistache can grow two to three feet per year.

  • Are Chinese pistache trees messy?

    While you might not notice the tree most of the year, and depending on the cultivar it may never fruit at all, if you have a female tree the fallen fruits can become messy and unattractive when stepped on.

Article Sources
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  1. Chinese pistache. Invasive Plant Atlas.