Shade Tree Superstar For Texas

Which characteristics are most important when choosing a tree to shade and beautify your home? First, to realize the “Earth–Kind” goal of attractive, productive plants, with minimum effort but maximum protection for the environment, an enlightened selection of plant materials is crucial. Secondly, with the specter of oak wilt threatening live and red oaks in many areas of Texas, there is an urgent need for more diversity in tree species being planted in our state.

So what is the best medium–size shade tree for most areas of Texas? The name is unusual but the performance is outstanding; it’s called the Chinese pistache (pronounced pis–tash’). Botanically it is known as Pistacia chinensis.

Abundance of Texas Advantages

Highly recommended for many years by horticultural experts at Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Kansas State universities, this native of China possesses a number of special advantages:

  • Regarded by many knowledgeable horticulturists as one of the most beautiful, pest free and easily maintained shade trees for the Southwest and Gulf Coast regions.
  • Winter hardy to central Kansas, the pistache forms a spreading, umbrella–like canopy which at maturity is 40–50 feet high with a width of 30 feet. This is an ideal size to provide shade, enframement and background for single–story homes.
  • Medium to fine textured foliage (an asset in smaller landscapes) that creates a light–textured shade pattern.
  • Foliage that remains an attractive, deep green color during the growing season, even in the rocky, highly alkaline, horribly abused soils common to many new home sites across Texas.
  • Spectacular fall color in shades of orange, red–orange and even crimson, often rivaling the show of sugar maples in the Northeast. In addition to its brilliance, this tree is also one of the most dependable sources of fall color in the lower South.
  • Very acceptable growth rate for such a long–lived species, with 2–3 feet of growth possible each year with good management.
  • The first shade tree to receive the coveted “Earth–Kind” designation from the Texas Agricultural Extension Service for its high levels of genetic resistance to insect and disease problems.
  • Extremely hard, durable wood, which is also very decay resistant, helps protect tree from wind, ice and vandal injury.
  • Superior drought, heat and wind tolerance once tree is established (that is, after 2 or 3 growing seasons).
  • Outstanding adaptability, with beautiful specimens growing form Amarillo to El Paso to Houston. The pistache is superbly adapted to all areas of Texas except the Rio Grande Valley.
  • An extremely tough, durable and adaptable medium-size tree which is tolerant of both urban and rural conditions.
  • Fruit set, only on female trees, consisting of clusters of small, round green berries which turn red to reddish–purple in the fall. These fruit clusters make excellent table decorations. And while inedible for humans, the fruit is relished by birds.

Ugly Duckling To Beautiful Swan

Although considered by many experts to be near perfect for this area of the U.S., the Chinese pistache does have a couple of minor faults. First, young pistache in 5–gallon containers (a nice size to purchase) are often rather awkward and gangling in appearance. Rest assured that after 5–6 years of tender loving care in your landscape, this “ugly duckling” will have been magically transformed into a most “beautiful swan” as its canopy develops and begins to mature. Secondly, shaping and pruning your tree when it’s young may be necessary to encourage proper branch spacing and structure and for best crown development. Even without such pruning however, the vast majority of pistache will eventually make very nicely shaped trees on their own.

Buying Tips

  • Trees 6–8 feet in height, trunk diameter of 1.5 inches, are probably the ideal size for most homeowners to purchase.
  • There can be seedling variation in fall color of pistache, with color intensity normally ranging from good to spectacular. Thus, shop in late October, early November when most pistache are exhibiting their fall color. At this time, you can easily select a specimen with the most attractive foliage coloration.

Pistache Culture At A Glance

  • Fall planting (September through November) is best. Select a planting site in full sun, and at least 15 feet from your home to provide sufficient room for future growth.
  • Pistache will not tolerate “wet feet.” So if battling a heavy clay soil which doesn’t drain well, it’s best to construct and plant in a raised bed 6 inches high, 4 feet in diameter.
  • With your fingertip, check moisture of the root ball weekly. Water only when top inch of soil is dry (this may be weekly during a dry summer but only rarely during a wet winter).
  • Mulch immediately after planting. Beginning early next spring, make light but frequent applications of fertilizer.