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Plant Profiles: Pistacia chinensis

Pistacia chinensis
Pistacia chinensis

Drawing by Rene Eisenbart

Pistacia chinensis

Kissed ash mia, consensus

Chinese pistache

Large, oval-to-rounded deciduous tree with superb fall foliage, 20 to 35 feet

Sun; male and female trees needed for best fruiting

Anonymity, seconded by shade

Because fall color is variable among trees, best to choose one in autumn; gallon-size nursery specimens may need staking.

Deciduous tree

Plant hunter Ernest Henry Wilson - better known as E.H. - was on his third trip to China when he came across Pistacia chinensis. It wasn't exactly high on his list. About that same time in 1908, he'd received appalling news from his benefactor, the Arnold Arboretum: The eighteen thousand lily bulbs he'd shipped from Ichang to Boston had rotted en route.

"Knocked all of a heap" by the news, Wilson seems to have made a quick recovery, and set about digging up and sending back twenty-five thousand more (no comment). He also continued the work that made him famous - introducing astonishing new plants from the Far East - conquests that had so far included Acer griseum, the paperbark maple, and Kolkwitzia amabilis, the beautybush. This trip, he bagged the Chinese pistache.

It's possible E.H. had already seen a rare specimen of pistacia growing at Kew Gardens, or perhaps his first glimpse of the plant came in the wild. In either case, having witnessed its wondrous fall color, you better believe he snatched seed and sent it home.

P. chinensis is a member of the family Anacardiaceae, which includes the smoke tree, Cotinus, and the sumac, Rhus. Not a bad pedigree if you're looking for a heart-stopping autumnal blaze. What makes this tree particularly valuable in my Northwest neck of the woods is that it doesn't need cold temperatures to trip its trigger, and will turn kaleidoscopic colors despite prolonged heat and a dearth of summer rain (ordinarily, a parched August/September will wreak havoc with fall color).

In addition to its showy, sumaclike plumage, the Chinese pistache is a superb choice for tough urban sites. It'll stand up to pollution, drought, lousy soil, or restricted root space and still grow into an impressive, spreading, 20- to 35 foot tree (capable of 50 feet). Its spring flowers aren't much, but the peppercorn-sized fruits on the female trees can be showy, maturing from yellow to red to metallic blue if they haven't first gone to the birds. You wouldn't want to eat them anyway, since this is not the edible pistachio tree (though P. chinensis is used as an understock for growing P.vera, the real nut).

Who knows why the Chinese pistache is conspicuously absent as a street tree in the Northwest. It's certainly not difficult to find in the trade. Perhaps the reason's been no more than an error in the Sunset Western Garden Book (since rectified), which insisted the tree was not reliably hardy in the Northwest. In any event, expect to see more of it, thanks to the efforts of indefatigable hortheads, now lobbying hard to get this once-Chinese rarity into the urban mainstream.


P. vera: The true pistachio is a small bushy tree with handsome glaucous leaves. It's hardy to 10° F in the hottest spot in the garden, but requires a long, hot summer and both male and female plants to fruit.

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.