Mount Atlas Mastic Tree – Pistacia atlantica

01 Nov

Autumn is here, and once again we are impressed by the most beautiful seasonal phenomenon in the plant world: the fall colors. Last year we wrote about the Palestine Terebinth that grows in the Mediterranean woods, and today we shall be looking at its relative, Pistacia atlantica, Mount Atlas Mastic Tree.

Pistacia atlantica
Pistacia atlantica

The Mount Atlas Mastic Tree is a deciduous tree, 3-15 m tall, with a single trunk and rounded crown. The leaves are pinnate and made of 3-5 pairs of leaflets growing from a winged axis (this sets it apart from the Palestine Terebinth). At the end of the axis there is usually a top leaflet. The leaflets are ovate-elongate, 3-7 mm long.

During autumn the leaves change color to orange-pink, and we get a spectacular display of fall colors.

Pistacia atlantica

The Mount Atlas Mastic tree is a dioecious tree – there are separate male and female trees. The flowers are inconspicuous and arranged in a panicle inflorescence. The male inflorescence is compact, while the female inflorescence is wider andlarger. The fruit is rounded, 5-7 mm in diameter. The dark blue fruit is fertile, and contains a seed. The red fruit is infertile. The birds are attracted to the red fruit, but identify the blue fruit and eat it only, and later on disperse its seeds.

Pistacia atlantica
Pistacia atlantica

On the tree we can see typical red coral-shaped galls. They are brought about by aphids named Slavum wertheimae. The aphid injures a growing point on the tree, causing it to grow a gall rather than a leaf. Inside the gall new aphids develop safely, until they can emerge.

The Mount Atlas Mastic Tree grows in open woodlands on arid rocky slopes at the edge of the desert, open woodlands and Mediterranean woodland edges in the Mediterranean region, and in the cold desert gorges. It is common in nature in the eastern Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights, is rare on Mt Carmel,  and the mountains of eastern Judea and Samaria, is locally common in the upper Negev Highlands, and is very rare in the southern Negev.

Its world distribution is from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco – after which it is named – to Central Asia.

Pistacia atlantica
Pistacia atlantica

Although many trees were felled in the region throughout history, large individual ‘sacred’ trees were saved from felling. The largest Mount Atlas Mastic Tree in Israel (in the picture on the left) grows in Ha’elot Picnic area near Yesha junction at Ramot Naftali (Eastesrn Upper Galilee). It is 600-800 years old.

The Hebrew word for peanuts mentioned in the Bible (Genesis:43:11) are actually the fruit of the Mount Atlas Mastic Tree that was roasted and eaten (in most of the English translations of the Bible the words “pistachio nuts” appear). The Scientific name of this tree is Pistacia, and the fruit of another species in the genus – Pistacia vera – are the pistachio nuts that we are familiar with. In Eastern Turkey, Pistacia vera trees are grafted on Pistacia atlantica rootstock, which is local and sturdier.

Pistacia atlantica

You are invited to visit the Botanical Garden, to see the fall colors of Pistacia atlantica in the Asia and Mediterranean sections!

Written by: Ori Fragman-Sapir and Yael Orgad

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