Saudi Aramco World: November/December 2013 - page 7

November/December 2013
and female trees that produce the nuts. The pis-
tachio is originally from Central Asia, and it can
still be found growing wild in parts of northeast-
ern Iran, northwest Afghanistan, Turkmenistan,
Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Alan Davidson, author of
The Oxford
Companion to Food
, noted that pistachio trees pro-
duce a good crop in alternate years. The nut is “the
kernel of the stone of a small, dry fruit which looks
like miniature mangos and grows in clusters.”
The pistachio, he continued, “with its unique
color and mild but distinctive flavor, has always
been a luxury, costing three or four times as much
as other nuts. It is generally eaten roasted and
salted as a dessert nut. In cooking it is often used
as a garnish or decoration, both in sweet and in
savory dishes. For example, it figures in some of
the finest pilaf dishes, and in European Pâtés and
Brawns which are served in slices, so that the nuts
appear as attractive green specks or slivers.”
The most common example of this use in the
West is in sliced mortadella, the popular Italian
sausage. From the Middle East to North
Africa, though, pistachio nuts are a com-
mon ingredient in sweets, lending their
crunch and flavor to ice cream, French
, baklava, halva,
(Turkish delight) and biscotti.
In the
, although the first pistachio
trees were officially introduced in 1805
by the New Crop Introduction Division
of the newly founded government, more
than 100 years passed before there was
a concerted effort to develop them into a
viable commercial crop.
In 1909, to guide development of the
vast agricultural potential of Califor-
nia’s Central Valley, the
a New Crop Introduction Research
Station in Chico. Two decades later, in 1929, the
patched plant specialist William E. Whitehouse to Persia
(modern Iran) to collect pistachio seeds for the station. He returned
with some nine kilograms (20 lb) of seeds, of different varieties. In
1930, Lloyd Joley, director of research in Chico, began field tests
to determine the suitability of each tree to the Central Valley envi-
ronment. Because it takes a pistachio tree seven to 10 years to pro-
duce fruit, it was not until 20 years later that Joley and his staff had
results: Of 3000 trees they planted from Whitehouse’s seeds, one—
which they had grown from a lone seed of its type—performed best.
In 1952, they named this variety Kerman, after the city on the cen-
tral plateau of modern Iran near which Whitehouse had collected
the seed. They released it for commercial orchard trials in 1957,
and today, all commercial pistachio trees in California come from
this one “mother tree.”
I set out to find it.
A few months later, I was in Chico, standing—and nearly lost—
in a chaotically overgrown, abandoned orchard section of the
research station that had been closed since 1967. It was more
like a habitat restoration area than a former experimental pista-
chio orchard. Pushing my way through 46 years of undergrowth,
I was looking for metal
tags that identified the pistachio trees
that remained. Of the few tags I could find, most were damaged or
illegible. To further complicate matters, there were two sets of tags,
each with separate number sequences, and I had only a partial list
of the older set of tag numbers. The trees had been planted by row
and number, but it was nearly impossible to determine where indi-
vidual trees were located.
I was trying to get my bearings with an old, hand-drawn map
that was photocopied for me by Robyn Scibilo, the site manager of
the Chico Genetic Resource and Conservation Center, which took
over the old research station orchards in 1992 and today works on
propagating and improving some 130 species. With her map and
helpful suggestions from several staff members, I wandered from
tree to tree, looking for the most famous pistachio tree in the US. If
it were still alive, it would be 83 years old. I was cautiously opti-
mistic: Pistachios can live 100 or even 150 years. On the map, I
could see two Kerman trees: one male and one female, side by side,
at the top of Row 10. But the map was not drawn to scale, and
there was no indication of north. I eventually identified a Hachiya
persimmon on the map, lined it up with an ancient cork oak and
then, keeping a flowering crab apple to my right, I headed south-
east in search of the mother tree of all California pistachios.
Dan Parfitt is a pomologist, or fruit tree specialist, at the
University of California at Davis’s Agricultural Extension Service. An
expert on pistachio research and field trials, he had told me that no
one could remember seeing the original Kerman tree since around
1983. This is the approximate date when cuttings were taken from
most of the pistachio trees at Chico in preparation for cloning and
re-establishment in the
Pistachio Collection at the National Clonal
Germplasm Repository for Tree Fruit, Nut Crops and Grapes at
Wolfskill Experimental Orchard, 160 kilometers (100 mi) south of
Named for the Iranian city where the seed was gathered in 1929, the Kerman pistachio proved the best for California
growers, thanks in part to its naturally large kernels—the nuts—that split their shells 60 to 75 percent of the time, making
the pistachio an easy snack food.
Previous spread:
The pistachio trees at Wolfskill Experimental Orchard allow botanists to
continue research into Kerman and other new, promising pistachio varieties.
This metal tag identifies the tree that today grows at Wolfskill from a cutting
taken from the Kerman "mother tree."
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