The flaming fall foliage of the Chinese pistache trees in Savannah are a visual testaments that they are indeed champions of color. The fiery oranges, reds, and yellows scream as if to say look at me. Believe me, you will, and if you are packing a camera, you will take a photo. They are not to be ignored.
Here at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens, we have several. It is almost reminiscent of a family in that we have the young or kids, the adult aged group both male and female and the grandparent which in reality is the Georgia State Champion.
The Georgia State Champion Tree stands one of the true testaments to one of our country's great plant exploration acquisitions, the Chinese pistache. This was discovered by plant explorer and horticultural hero if you will Frank Meyer. I am surprised that I walk by this tree every day and just now noticed the old USDA tag hanging down that says it was planted in 1938. We are approaching its 80th birthday.
The Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens got its start as a USDA Plant Introduction Station, and today many of those early obtainments are monolithic in size but growing confirmation of plant durability and performance. Few of us ever think about a Chinese pistache getting large enough for a tree house and in the case of this one perhaps the whole house.
If you are not familiar with the Chinese pistache, botanically speaking it is known as Pistachia Chinensis. I first became acquainted with the Chinese pistache when it was selected as a Texas Super Star Winner. Texas fall color was hard to come by, but this tree was rock solid and reliable. In California, it has been used a rootstock for the delicious pistachio nut trees though other species have now been chosen.
The Chinese pistache is also drought tolerant. Just think it is 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.
The Chinese pistache like a holly in that they are dioecious, meaning there are both male and female trees. The female will produce fruit that is a small red drupe turning blue when ripe which are attractive in all stages. If you are considering planting one close to a sidewalk, porch or driveway, you may want a male where-as out in the landscape you may find the fruit attractive. While they are not edible, the birds certainly will have a feast.
Gardeners are always wanting fast-growing trees, and though fast is not always good 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 surface. This will give you the best root expansion and in your landscape.
The Chinese pistache can look a little leggy or lanky in its early years but turns from the ugly duckling into the beautiful swan with a nice oval shape. In the second year prune lanky looking branches to encourage branch 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 Chinese pistache is being widely used for city beautification, from city and college landscapes to public gardens like the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in Savannah. I assure you they will do the same for your landscape too!
(Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of "Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South" and "Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden." Follow him at: @CGBGgardenguru.)
(c)2017 Norman Winter
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