Birthplace in the Holy Land
In the history of pistachios is royalty, perseverance and pride. Pistachios date back to the Holy Lands of the Middle East, where they grew wild in the high desert regions. Legend has it that lovers met beneath the trees to hear the pistachios crack open on moonlit nights for the promise of good fortune. A rare delicacy, pistachios were a favorite of the Queen of Sheba, who demanded all her land’s production for herself and her court. The royal nut was imported by American traders in the 1880s, primarily for U.S. citizens of Middle Eastern origin. Some 50 years later, pistachios became a popular snack food, introduced in vending machines.These imported nuts were dyed red to draw attention, and to cover stains from antiquated harvesting techniques.
The birth of the California industry followed shortly. It was in 1929 that American plant scientist William E. Whitehouse spent a lonely six months in Persia (modern day Iran), collecting seed and sifting through piles of produce to find the most distinctive pistachios. He returned carrying a burlap sack 20 pounds heavy with seed.
The next year, experimental plantings were established in California, the perfect host with its desert-like climate. With pistachio trees requiring a full seven to ten years to mature, it was 1950 before one stand-out tree emerged. The variety was named Kerman for the famous carpet-making city near which the seed was collected. Scientists then strengthened the Kerman by budding it to heartier rootstock varieties.
Now the concept of a California pistachio industry was becoming a reality. Word of the new crop spread, and plantings expanded throughout the state in the 1960s. Yet, many facets of the new crop remained a mystery to these adventurous Californians.
Waiting the seven to ten years for a return on their investment, they came to find that pistachios are alternate bearing, producing a heavy crop one year and a lighter crop the next. But it was their diligence and commitment that brought forth an industry that is now the second largest producer of pistachios worldwide.
The first commercial crop of 1.5 million pounds was harvested in 1976 from 4,350 acres. California now has more than 250,000 acres planted throughout 22 counties.