Chinese pistache: A tough, colorful tree

After a sizzling summer, North Texans crave the first signs of fall — a cooling rain shower, milder evening temperatures and the changing landscape.

Plants tend to perk up with the slightest nod to autumn. They grow, bloom, produce fruit and set seed until winter strikes. And as the days get shorter, many deciduous trees and shrubs celebrate the season with changing foliage. Leaves turn red, yellow, maroon or bronze before dropping and blowing in the wind.

When people praise an area’s fall foliage, they generally refer to tree leaves. This stands to reason considering the density of a tree’s canopy and the way trees dominate many landscapes. Across Texas, many types of trees produce colorful fall leaves if weather conditions are favorable including maples, crepe myrtles, willows and oaks. One durable tree that reliably provides fall color is the Chinese pistache.

Designated as a Texas Superstar and an EarthKind plant, the Chinese pistache is a medium sized shade tree that is extremely winter hardy. This ornamental has a superior level of drought, heat and wind tolerance and is hardy to Zones 7 – 10. In addition, it has extremely hard, durable wood, which helps to protect tree from wind, ice and decay. Above all, it has a high degree of genetic resistance to insects and disease.

Chinese pistache trees have medium to fine textured foliage that looks similar to those of its relatives in the sumac family. Leaves are an attractive deep green color during the growing season. During summer, the female trees produce panicles of inconspicuous red flowers that are followed by small green berries; they turn red to purple in the fall, attracting many bird species. Also in fall, the tree surprises onlookers with its spectacular fall foliage as leaves turn shades of crimson, orange and red.

In arid areas where drought is common, the Chinese pistache may be the only tree that provides bright autumn color. It is adapted to desert conditions and performs reliably in difficult environments such as high-traffic areas, along streets and around paved patios and driveways. These trees can grow 40-50 ft. tall with a rounded canopy that extends 30 ft. at maturity. They tolerate a wide range of soils including alkaline, which means they are well suited to North Texas.


Although considered by many experts as a near-perfect tree for the Southwest and Gulf Coast regions, Chinese pistache does have a few minor drawbacks. Young trees, which are often sold in 5-10 gallon containers, have an awkward, gangly appearance. After only five years or so, however, these ugly ducklings turn into beautiful swans. A bit of shaping will encourage proper branch spacing and crown development, but most trees eventually turn into lovely specimens without much intervention.

The Chinese pistache was designated as an Earth-Kind plant because it met the Texas AgriLife’s Extension’s goals of being an attractive, productive plant that requires only minimal care after establishment. Young trees should be planted in well-drained soil; they do not like wet roots. Stake trees only if needed due to high winds. They may be pruned lightly after the first 1-2 years to gradually raise the canopy high enough to walk beneath. Also, they should be watered regularly until well established — preferably by hand-held hose rather than by sprinklers.

Chinese pistache trees are best planted in fall. Select a planting site in full sun that is 15-20 ft. from any structure to allow for canopy spread. Dig a hole that is 3-5 times the width and only as deep as the root ball. After placing the tree in the hole, fill in around the tree with the soil that was dug from the hole. Do not add soil amendments. Mulch around the root zone immediately after planting, keeping the mulch away from the trunk.


Most fast growing trees use a lot of water, fall prey to insects or disease and, if they survive, have a short lifespan. The Chinese pistache is known to defy this adage. Expect the tree to have a long life growing 1-3 ft. per year. It is a close relative of the pistachio nut tree, but it is much hardier, and its wood is very hard and rot resistant.

Problems with Chinese pistache trees are typically due to human error such as overwatering or improper chemical use. For example, most trees can be damaged or killed by herbicides applied up to 50 ft. away. The most damaging products are those that remain persistent in the soil for a long time. They are often referred to as soil sterilants and are commonly applied to weeds in the cracks of driveways or along fence and property lines. These chemicals remain active in the soil long enough for the tree roots to grow into the treated area. Roots then absorb the chemical and move it back to the tree.

Resources: Texas and Arizona Agricultural Extensions, New Mexico State University,

Call the Texas AgriLife Extension, Hood County at 817-579-3280 and ask to speak to a Master Gardener or visit the website at