On Gardening: Chinese pistache a testament to time and beauty

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceNovember 8, 2013 


The Chinese pistache tree offers reliable fall color, and durability making it one of the best trees for the urban landscape. MCT


Right outside my office door stands one of the true testaments to one of our country's great plant acquisitions, the Chinese pistache. The Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens got its start as a USDA Plant Introduction Station and today those early obtainments are monolithic in size and confirmation of plant durability and performance.

If you are not familiar with the Chinese pistache, it is one of our best sources for fall color. I first became acquainted with the Chinese pistache when it was selected as a Texas Super Star Winner. In Texas, fall color was hard to come by, but this tree was rock solid and reliable.

At the Columbus Botanical Garden I enjoyed them as small trees for the urban landscape with a blaze of fiery orange and yellow that would compete with the hybrid red maples and bald cypress. Now in Savannah, Ga., I see their 100-year potential and I can say I still adore them. Draped in Spanish moss they are even more picturesque.

The Chinese pistache is also drought tolerant -- recommended in places like New Mexico and Arizona -- and is native to western China. When selecting your location keep in mind that it does not like wet winter feet so choose a site that drains well.

It is cold hardy from zones 6 through 9, meaning from St. Louis to Orlando, gardeners can relish the dark green leaves that become a blaze of fall color.

Gardeners are always asking about fast growing trees, and though fast is not a good criteria for selecting trees, the Chinese pistache certainly holds its own. It is not uncommon to see 2 to 3 feet of growth a year. Fall is a terrific time to plant. To grow yours, choose a site in full sun. Set out nursery-grown plants into well-drained moist fertile soil. Dig the hole 3 to 5 times as wide as the root ball but no deeper. The top of the rootball should be even with the soil profile. This will give you the best root expansion and establishment in your landscape.

The Chinese pistache can look a little leggy or lanky in its early years but turns from ugly duckling into beautiful swan with a nice oval shape. Container-grown trees rarely require staking. In the second year, prune lanky branches to encourage development. Feed in late winter with an application of an 8-8-8 fertilizer at 1 pound per 100 square feet of planted area. This is the area from the trunk to just outside the canopy.

The trees are dioecious, meaning they may be either male or female. Though there are a number of named varieties, generic is still the norm, so most likely you will not know which type you are buying.

If you do have a choice, know that male trees grow slightly faster and offer the best form and structure.

The Chinese pistache is being widely used for city beautification, from city and college landscapes to medians.

They are used extensively in Columbus, Ga., making for an extraordinary downtown.

I assure you they will do the same for your landscape!

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