Tree Spotlight: Chinese Pistache

By Canopy Team on October 21, 2019

Chinese pistache tree with autumn color

Chinese pistache photo by Elise Willis

Tree Spotlight Series: Follow along as we learn about the fascinating trees that live among us. This series is in partnership with Rhee Lab in the Plant Biology Department of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

Other posts in the series: ginkgo biloba, Douglas firgiant sequoia, Chinese tallow, silver-dollar gum, Monterey pine, green dracaenacoast live oakcork oakJapanese maplesilver birch, dawn redwood, Japanese persimmon ‘Hachiya’, carob, California bay, avocado, southern magnolia, flowering dogwood, red ironbark eucalyptus, blackwood acacia, narrow leaved paperbark, and cockspur coral.

Written by David Hoang

Emblazoned in the deep scarlet hue of its leaves, the Chinese pistache tree is one of the most eye-catching ornamental trees you can plant. As the genus name Pistacia suggests, the Chinese pistache is related to the commercial pistachio.

A colorful tree

The brilliant colors of a mature Chinese pistache tree is an attractive characteristic of this ornamental plant. During the fall, its lustrous green leaves turn into a beautiful shade of red and orange (and in the desert, it is the only tree to do so).

Photo by Aaron Maizlish
Photo by Aaron Maizlish via Flickr

Pistacia chinensis is one of the last trees to change colors in the fall, and thus carries over its autumn colors into early winter.

The fruits come from unimpressive green blossoms that later develop into red berries in the fall, transitioning into a blue-ish hue as they mature in the winter. Though inedible for humans, the fruits are largely enjoyed by visiting birds.

The outer bark, while grey-brown and durable, can flake off to reveal a salmon-red inner bark.

A future fuel source

The tree produces an edible oil that has been found to be useful for biodiesel production. This oil, once extracted from the seeds and fruits of the tree, can be combined with ethyl acetate (a colorless organic liquid found in glue and nail polish remover) to form a biodiesel.

P. chinensis is a particularly advantageous source of biodiesel due to its ease of cultivation and ability to grow in a variety of climates: temperate, subtropical, and tropical. It is versatile and can adapt to harsh conditions.

The oil also yields an astringent biomolecule called tannin. In plants, tannin protect against predation (in the form of a pesticide, for example) and can also help regulate plant growth. In the case of chemical production, tannin is important because it can form gallic acid — an intermediate in the synthesis of trimethoprim, a pharmaceutical drug mainly used to treat bladder infections.

A healing touch

Chinese pistache tree

The oil of P. chinensis is not the only practical product of this tree. Galls, or abnormal growths on P. chinensis, have medicinal applications and are astringent, expectorant, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory. They are utilized in Ayurvedic medicine to treat a comprehensive list of respiratory disorders.

In Pakistan, they are used to treat hepatitis and liver disorders. In traditional Chinese medicine, parts of the plant have been used to treat dysentery, inflammatory swelling, psoriasis, and rheumatism.

Extracts from the tree bark have been shown to have antioxidant properties, yielding a protective effect against some lung and thyroid injuries.

With continued research, we can continue to understand the medicinal effects of the Chinese pistache—a beautiful yet incredibly versatile tree.

David Hoang

David Hoang was a 2019 summer intern at the Rhee Lab in the Plant Biology Department of the Carnegie Institution for Science. He is as undergraduate student majoring in bioengineering at the University of California San Diego. In his free time, he enjoys listening to podcasts and practicing photography.

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