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America’s Pistachio Industry Came From a Single Seed

Pistachios have always been popular among those who knew about them, but America didn't produce a commercial crop of pistachios until 1976, which explains why I thought "pistachio" was just a color when I was young. Pistachio trees require certain conditions that made growing them in Iran profitable, but not so much in the US. Any successful trees take a decade to mature, and then only produce pistachios every other year.

The botanically inclined experimented with planting the precious trees in the American South and California. But the true start to pistachio domination came with the founding of the Chico New Plant Introduction Station in the early 20th century. Paraphrasing a favorite sci-fi quote, Ferguson says that part of the USDA’s goal is to explore “new worlds” of plants. In 1929, the station sent William E. Whitehouse, a deciduous tree researcher, to Iran. His mission: to collect pistachio seeds for planting.

For six months, Whitehouse searched, gradually collecting 20 pounds of different pistachios. Some came from the Agah family in Rafsanjan, who, Hejri notes, is still the main producer of pistachios in the area. After Whitehouse’s return to Chico, the station planted and evaluated 3,000 trees. Only one pistachio rose above the others. Sourced from the Agah orchard, it was given the name “Kerman.”

That was only one tree, which had to be fertilized by another, and then regrown to develop a true variety, with at least ten years between each generation. But the American pistachio market got a shot in the arm in the late '70s, and now the US has 178,000 acres planted with pistachio trees. Read the history of American pistachios at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: Stan Shebs)


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