Friday, October 5, 2012

Pistache for posterity

A 94-year-old lady came in today and bought our largest Chinese pistache to plant in her front yard.
 I was raised that you don’t mention a lady’s age. But she volunteered it, and I think at a certain point that old rule doesn’t apply.
I’ve known her for a long time. She isn’t getting around as well as she used to, so her sister drove her in. Her sister lives in Texas, but comes out to visit and help out now and then. She’s 91.
 The old walnut tree in their front yard died, so it had to be taken out.
 “We weren’t going to replace it,” said the sister. “At our age, we’d never see it grow. But,” she paused.
“You should plant trees no matter what your age,” I replied.
“Yes, you should,” she agreed firmly. “Plus, our doctor lives across the street, and he said he wanted us to plant a tree.”
“You do what your doctor tells you,” said the older sister with a smile.
So, doctor’s orders, she bought the largest tree we had and arranged for a young man to come out and plant it.

 The city had planted one Chinese pistache already in their front yard a while back when the Modesto ash came out. That one is a female tree, doesn’t color up so well. “The females do have pretty berries,” I said. “And the songbirds enjoy them, even if they are a bit of a mess.” But they especially wanted the fall color. 

The reason we sell the grafted Keith Davey Chinese pistache is for that reliable fall color and the fact that it doesn’t have the berries. Most people prefer that; they want to know they’ll get that familiar bright red color. And while the pistache berries aren’t squishy, there sure can be a lot of them. Pistacia chinensis is dioecious, having separate male and female trees. With nursery stock grown from seed, you have a 50-50 chance. And the fall color ranges from yellow to orange to purplish to red.

I’m partial to all of them. I live along the freeway, where CalTrans has planted mixed seedlings. And Chinese pistache is fecund enough that more seedlings have augmented that stand. I bought a tray of seedlings from a grower years ago, culled out those that lacked good fall color, and planted half a dozen of the best on my property. I have some male and some female. Lots of winter songbirds enjoy the female trees. But I understand why homeowners want to know what they’re getting. For reliable fall color, plant Keith Davey.
Chinese pistache is one of our most common landscape trees. It can tolerate drought (many of the trees on or adjacent to my property get zero summer irrigation). It can also tolerate reasonable lawn watering. No pests and few diseases. A small percentage of trees in some parts of town die from a vascular disease that looks and spreads like verticillium wilt. The pathogen hasn’t been confirmed, but if you do lose one I suggest avoiding trees that are known to be susceptible to that when you replace it. But thousands of them grow without incident around the Sacramento Valley.

 The growth rate is what we call moderate. Watered deeply, fertilized a bit when young, they grow two to three feet a year up and out. In ten years you have a nice medium tree with equal spread to height. In a couple of decades, you have a good-sized tree. Eventually they can get quite large. Roots are deep. A little gawky when young, they barely require pruning once established.

This is the tree that has the most reliable, consistent fall color in our area, beginning in late October and continuing through November. When they turn color varies with watering regimen, exposure to cold, soil nutrition, and other factors. Unirrigated trees, such as those along the highways, turn color first. And even with the right genetic material, some trees don’t give good color some years. A tree in a sheltered courtyard may disappoint you, and some years are better than others. Nature is fickle.

 But if you want fall color, this species is your best choice here. And in the right year, the right place, the right tree, the results are spectacular.

 I like their attitude. Yep, they can grow that. And you can too.

1 comment:

  1. That is so cool that the doctor ordered them to get a tree at 94 and 91! Great story and a great looking tree. I have never heard of it. Thanks for sharing.