Neil Sperry

Now is ideal time to plant pistachio tree, ‘ugly duckling’ that becomes beautiful

I’m frequently asked to recommend “the best shade tree for the Metroplex.”

Over the years I’ve tweaked it down to a list of seven types. Six of them are native locally. Four are oaks: live oak, Shumard red oak, chinquapin oak and bur oak. Add in cedar elm and pecan. (OK, southern magnolia if you don’t mind slow growth and eastern redcedar if you need a large evergreen for screening.)

And then there is one tree that comes from half a world away. It’s Chinese pistachio, Pistacia chinensis. That’s the one I want to tell you about today because it’s about to put on its annual fall show.

I grew up in Texas, but in the mid-60’s I left for Ohio to get two degrees and to teach for a couple of years. Then A&M called and offered me a job back here in DFW with the Extension Service. When I came back there were a few pistachios, but honestly, the several I saw were actually fairly mature. Somebody must have come through town in the 50s selling their virtues, because they were already 20 or 25 feet tall, handsome and thriving.

I started my work here in September, 1970, and about 10 weeks later I saw their true colors, and that was when I started to pay close attention to this handsome tree. I bought one and planted it in our backyard as the one shade tree near our patio. And that’s where I’ll pick up my story.

The Arbor Day Foundation refers to Chinese pistachio on their website as being the “ugly duckling” of the tree world because it starts out as an “unattractive and misshapen young tree that grows into a magnificent specimen.” That’s exactly what our tree did.

It was like a gangly puppy. It sent out long shoots for branches. You looked at it and wondered if it would ever have any form. I trimmed it to force some side branches, but even they came out long and supple.

When we moved from that house after seven years I wondered if my tree was ever going to amount to anything. Fortunately, I drove down our old alley several years later and it had taken on a rounded and lovely form and it was still doing great the last time I saw it.

Chinese pistachios grow to mature heights and widths of 35 to 45 feet. They’re excellent shade trees for medium-sized to large city lots. They need full sun, of course, but all big shade trees do. They are well suited to somewhat arid conditions, which is why you see them used so commonly and successfully in West Texas cities.

They’re available in a wide range of sizes in local independent retail nurseries. I bought my tree in a 5-gallon pot. As a young horticulturist I had more time than money, so it was a great match. However, if you’re seeking a more immediate impact, you’ll find them in containers all the way up to 200-gallon tubs.

People ask when the best time for planting might be, and I can honestly say that November might be the optimum. You can shop local nurseries now and compare trees for health and vigor before they lose their leaves for the winter. Many nurseries are offering discounts as they reduce their inventories before their Christmas trees and really cold weather arrive.

Some tips in buying and planting your tree

  • Plant your new pistachio in a well-draining location. My old theory is that you can always add water. It’s a lot harder to remove it when you have more than your plant really needs.
  • Set your new tree at the same depth at which it was growing in its container. If you plant it too deeply its roots will be smothered by the settling soil. If you set it too high too many roots will be exposed.
  • Here is a big one: Wrap the new tree’s trunk with paper tree wrap from the ground up to the lowest branches and leave the wrap in place for the first two years. These materials are made to look like tree bark so they won’t be especially noticeable. Their purpose is to protect the trunks of trees like pistachios, oaks and maples from sunscald and subsequent borer invasion. This wrapping is absolutely non-negotiable!

And just to tantalize us

The species Chinese pistachio bears its male and female flowers on separate trees. Only the female plants will bear fruit. They’re not edible by humans like the pistachio nuts are.

They are more of a red, berry-like fruit that are borne in large clusters. They’re actually quite pretty and birds like them, so that’s a good thing. But for people who prefer fruitless male trees, the selection ‘Keith Davey’ is right up your alley.

Unfortunately it’s almost never seen in the nursery trade. Although it was patented clear back in 1963, very few growers go to the trouble of grafting it for sale. But at least you know that it’s out there (somewhere). All you can do is ask and perhaps do a Web search to try to find it.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at and follow him on Facebook.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram