Pistacia chinensis--a Real Star
By Sonoma Master Gardener Stephanie Wrightson
Lights, camera, action! Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis), a Sonoma County Superstar, provides blockbuster drama of vibrant orange and red autumn leaves. Sun-hardy with only occasional water requirements once established, this ornamental tree is a real hit in home gardens and streetscapes.
This China native grows to between 30-60 feet tall. Because of its equally wide canopy, the Chinese pistache is a good choice for a shade tree, especially when planted on the southwest side of a one-story residence. Being deciduous, it will provide winter sun once the leaves drop. The pinnate leaves are about a foot long, each consisting of between 10 and 16 narrow leaflets. While its leaves are lightly fragrant and an attractive dark green during the summer, its primary season of interest is the fall when those leaves turn brilliant colors that rival East coast autumn foliage. You can use it as a single specimen planting, or, if you have a long driveway, lining one or both sides with pistache will result in a spectacular display. While related to the pistachio tree, this species does not produce nuts. However, if a male Chinese pistache is planted nearby, the female tree can develop clumps of ornamental, inedible bright red berries in fall, which turn blue-purple in winter. The berries are a source of food for birds. If you are concerned about tree height or berries dropping on walkways, consider a fruitless male clone, P. chinensis ‘Keith Davey,’ a 35-foot high tree with a crown diameter of 30 feet.
Chinese pistache has moderate growth and is relatively long-lived. It tolerates many soil types and water conditions, even poor alkaline soils and nearby lawns as long as the soil is well-drained. Its deep, non-aggressive roots make it a sturdy tree in the wind and a safe selection near patios and sidewalks. A young Chinese pistache is gawky and often lacks a strong central leader and benefits from structural pruning in its early years. As it matures, it develops a rounded crown with an umbrella-like canopy. Not only is an established Chinese pistache heat and drought-tolerant (perfect for Sonoma County’s hot, dry summers), it is winter-hardy to 20º and it is pest and fire resistant. One note of caution - Chinese pistache is one of a number of trees susceptible to Verticillium wilt. Therefore, proper care is important (i.e., plant in well-drained soil and fertilize only as needed.) If Verticillium wilt has been a persistent problem in your yard, you should forgo this tree.
Because of the tree’s many attributes, P. chinesis can be found in residential gardens and public lands throughout the County including Sonoma Plaza, downtown Santa Rosa and many neighborhoods on Petaluma’s East side. If you are looking for summer shade and a fall focal point in a tree that is a Sonoma County Superstar, we highly recommend the Chinese pistache!