What’s about 45 feet tall and has a 44-inch waistline? It sheds a lot and gets regular checkups. But it never moves from its spot. Know the answer?
It’s a tree at the Arizona State University Research Park in south Tempe.
But the botanical wonder with a broad girth and 75 feet of shade is not just any tree. This Mount Atlas pistachio tree gets house calls from a tree doctor in case a bough breaks, its trunk cracks or it is struck by some sort of blight.
ASU facilities manager Dean Hooks estimates the gray-leafed tree has cost the university at least $100,000 in special care in 20 years — and all because the tree was almost famous.
A plaque on its trunk boasts that the giant was once nominated in the early 1980s to be recognized as a “tree of significant shade,” he says.
The champion trees listed on the Arizona Register of Big Trees include dozens of other timber giants rooted in Arizona soil: A 28-foot redberry juniper in the Ajo Mountains, a 21-foot jumping cholla in Pinal County, an African sumac with a 115-inch girth in Tucson and others.
But no pistachio.
Despite its wide waist and expansive crown, the pistachio has never made the list. Ken Morrow, who keeps track of all the big fauna on the state register, says he doesn’t know why.
To become a champion tree, a botanist or other tree admirer needs to record the tree’s circumference (about 4.5 feet from the ground), figure out the height and span of the crown, and then add the numbers together to find the tree’s total points. The information is then submitted to the state register to nominate the tree.
Despite the pistachio’s lack of success, the tree has been lavished with attention since the 1990s, when Motorola began constructing a research facility at the site.
Hooks says the tree has been there almost a century, planted in 1908 after ASU botanists brought it back from the Canary Islands.
That means this nearcentenarian has stood on the site since before Arizona became a state. It has withstood hundreds of monsoon season storms and drought, weathered scratches from squirrels and other creatures, bowed in gusty desert winds and fended off many diseases, aphids and fungi that could debilitate or kill it.
While silently fighting the forces of nature, the bushytopped tree continues to grow in breadth and age, thriving in the desert environment.
Farmhands used to park under the tree when the land was home to ASU’s Research Farm. That sort of thing has not happened since Hooks became the tree’s protector.
After spotting the plaque, Motorola adjusted its construction plans so as not to disturb the tree. Hooks made sure that no one parked near it, or put any tables or chairs underneath to preserve its root system.
“One of my duties was watching out for that tree,” recalls Hooks, who was the former facilities director for Motorola. “We had a bright orange fence around it, a sign hanging on it. Even after the site was completed, we had an arborist on call 24 hours a day.”
And they still do.
The current arborist or tree doctor is Doug Duport, who works for the landscaping firm The Groundskeeper. He carries a cell phone in case research park officials notice some unusual changes in the pistachio, which some at the park nicknamed the “Bfeet” — the Big and Famous Tree.
Duport checks on it every three months or so. The tree, a male that cannot produce the spicy pistachio nuts, has a botanical illness called slime flux, a bacterial infection that is incurable.
“It’s something that the tree is going to have to live with,” Duport says.
He monitors the water and tree’s soil nutrients.
Most of his examination is conducted by using his senses.
He even uses his ears, tapping the tree with a small hammer and listening for any abnormal noises that would signal decay.
It’s uncommonly large, he remarks. Research shows that most pistachio trees grow up to 30 feet tall with a 30-foot crown.
But they’re known for preferring warm climates. Originally from western Asia and Asia Minor, the pistachios that have settled in the United States are mostly in the Southwest and parts of California.
Duport notes that this broad pistachio is protective of its interests. To keep the soil near it moist and rich, the tree has grown much wider on top than it is tall, extending its shade and shelter.
He is in awe of its survival techniques, its age and strength.
“Honestly, I think there’s something in all of us that appreciates trees,” Duport says. “As a child, I loved climbing trees, playing in the woods and built forts and fell out of trees.”
He adds that trees like this large pistachio are a source of comfort, which could explain why so many of the research park caretakers have a soft spot for the Bfeet.
“We all have sought the cover of trees,” Duport says.