Chinese Pistache, Pistacia chinensis

Okay, since you’re all wondering… yes, this is technically a pistachio tree but no, it isn’t the pistachio tree. Those delectable green nuts are actually the seeds of Pistacia vera, a close relative.

Nonetheless, the Chinese pistache stands on its own merits as a landscape specimen.

Chinese pistache as street trees
Chinese pistache as street trees in Seattle. Photo by City of Seattle.

For starters, this is yet another tough tree that transplants easily and tolerates a wide range of conditions from frequently moist clay soils to very droughty sandy soils. The Chinese pistache is virtually pest and disease free and scoffs at heat, wind, soil compaction and other stressful factors.

In winter, this tree has a coarse-textured look thanks to an upright branching habit of thick, stout stems and twigs with prominent buds. The bark on young trees is dotted with brown lenticels that fade as the tree ages, becoming flaky, gray-brown scales with rusty orange furrows in between.

The leaves are alternate and pinnately compound with 10 to 12 leaflets that are 2 to 4 inches long and droop gently. Summer foliage is a rich, lustrous green, transitioning to show-stopping shades of orange-red and crimson in autumn that will rival any sugar maple on the block. If that’s not enough, pair that fall color with accents of small red and blue (yes, blue!) clustered fruits that ripen in October.

Chinese pistache in fall color
Chinese pistache in fall color. Photo from Arborday.org

This small-to-medium sized tree commonly reaches 35’ in height and has a 25’-35’ spread in cultivation, with a rounded form. In optimal conditions—full sun with moist and well-drained soils—the tree may grow an additional 20’ taller and wider.

Chinese pistache can be somewhat awkward as a youngster and requires diligent pruning for good structure; however, once established, this tree matures into a lovely specimen and requires little follow-up maintenance.

The tree is hardy in zones 6-9, making it suitable for planting throughout western Washington and anywhere south of Moses Lake in eastern Washington.

The Chinese pistache might be a stretch if you live north of Moses Lake, but who knows? It might do just fine with a warmer microclimate on sites with southern exposures or retained heat from adjacent buildings and paved surfaces. This tree is relatively new to our region, and there’s much more to learn about it!

The Chinese pistache is a rare specimen in our northwest landscapes, but given its many compelling characteristics, it is worth your attention and perhaps, a trial in your city.