I was a young horticulturist still working for the Texas Agricultural Extension Service (that name alone dates me).
It was the early 1970s, and I’d been called to a house here in the Metroplex. Nice neighborhood. Lovely house. Big shade tree in the front yard, but it was one I’d never seen before.
Was it a walnut? Some kind of sumac? No, the lady told me with a great deal of pride, it was a Chinese pistachio that she’d planted herself 20 years earlier.
I thought I was a pretty good tree guy, but I learned something that day, and it’s been fun ever since to watch this fine tree from the Far East catch on and become one of Texas’ most popular shade trees.
Chinese pistachios are probably our most dependable source of outstanding fall color, and this otherwise bland autumn has proven that to be the case once again.
A friend of mine, a photography teacher, called me to ask if I could refer him to a couple of places where he could send his students to shoot outstanding fall foliage. Obviously the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and Chandor Gardens in Weatherford came to mind, but I told him that I’d be out and about, and that I’d try to locate a couple of others.
That’s when I came across a commercial planting (big box store parking lot) that was lined with pistachios. I pulled off the road and sent him a text saying, “The trees look like they’re on fire here.” Then I parked and spent 30 minutes taking my own photos.
Let me tell you how hard it is to crack into my list of “Best Shade Trees for North Texas.” I won’t recommend a tree unless it’s handsome, adapted to our soils and our climate, grows at a reasonable rate, and isn’t not susceptible to fatal insect and disease problems.
Chinese pistachio scores an “A-Plus” in all of those categories, putting it up on the same pedestal as live oaks, Shumard red oaks, chinquapin oaks, bur oaks, cedar elms and pecans (also magnolias, if you’re willing to accept trees that grow just a little more slowly).
However, the big difference with Chinese pistachios from all of those other trees is that they’re all native to Texas and Chinese pistachio obviously is not.
Yet it has obviously proven its adaptability to our area, enough so that it’s been named a Texas Superstar in the Texas A&M testing program.
Getting started with Chinese pistachios …
Buy a container-grown tree for your best chance of success. Trees that are dug suffer root loss in the process and that can set them back a good bit.
For most landscaping uses you’ll want to choose a tree in a 20-gallon to 100-gallon container. Much of that choice, of course, will depend on your budget. They grow fairly quickly, but there’s something nice about having a fairly good-sized tree from the outset.
Dig the planting hole large enough to accommodate the tree’s root ball. Be sure you dig the hole no deeper than necessary. You want the tree to grow at the same depth at which it was planted in its container. If you set it on soft, freshly dug soil, that soil will compact and the tree will sink. That can spell disaster as the tree matures.
It’s always a good idea to stake your new tree to hold it firmly in place. Use three heavy stakes equally spaced around the tree. One should be south of the trunk since that’s where the prevailing wind comes from during the summer, while the tree’s leaves act as a sail. One stake should be to the northwest and the third should be to the northeast.
Use cable to secure the trunk to the stakes, running the cable through sections of old garden hose to give protection and padding. The cables should be at the mid-point on the trunk (or higher is better) for maximum support, and they must be kept taut at all times.
One of the most critical things about planting new pistachios is to wrap their trunks.
The trees have thin bark initially, and they are quite susceptible to sun scald and cracking if they are exposed to the sun’s burning rays during the hot days of mid-summer. Borers often move in subsequent to the sunscald and cracking.
Use paper tree wrap applied from the ground up to the lowest limbs to offer protection for the tree’s first two years. The wrap will expand as the trunk grows larger, so you don’t have to worry about its girdling the trunk.
Use excess soil you’ve removed from the hole to build a donut-shaped berm 18 or 20 inches out from the trunk of the new tree.
That will give you a reservoir into which you can run water every two or three days from mid-spring until late fall and less often in winter. Sprinkler irrigation alone will not be sufficient to get the new tree started.
Pistachios, like all shade trees, benefit from applications of all-nitrogen lawn foods in spring, early summer and early fall. Be sure that your fertilizer does not contain any type of weedkiller, and water it into the soil deeply.
Be prepared for your new tree to grow in spurts. It may even become just a little bit gangly with somewhat uneven new shoots. If that happens you can use lopping shears to trim them slightly to reshape the tree.
Other than that, you can sit back and prepare to be dazzled year after year. You’ll be planting a winner.