Lychee, Litchi chinensis, is a subtropical fruit native to China and may have been cultivated as early as 111 B.C., where its name translates to “gift for a joyful life.”
The fruit belongs to the same family as rambutan and longan, and has similar flesh, but is better known than its siblings in the United States. Lychee production can be found in both Florida and Hawaii.
The outside skin of a lychee is inedible, bumpy, and can vary in color from pink to red when ripe. The inner fruit is whiteish, almost translucent, and similar in texture and appearance to grape flesh.
Lychees are most often peeled and eaten fresh for their sweet, floral flavor. The fruit is also added as a garnish to various food dishes and processed into juices, smoothies, or wines. When frozen, lychee can easily defrosted, peeled, and eaten.
Types & Varieties
There are many species of lychee grown across the world with 26 major varieties in China, 33 in India, as well as many more in Australia, Southeastern Asia, and the United States.
Depending on variety and environment, lychee trees can range in size from 20 to 30 feet in California or greater than 100 feet in tropical areas. Trees are extremely sensitive to temperature variations, which have limited its geographic spread.
In Hawaii, preferred cultivars are Groff and Kaimana; in California, Bengal, Brewster, Groff, Hak Ip, Kate Sessions, Kuwait Mi, Mauritius, and Sweet Cliff are popular.
Lychees are slow-growing trees with dense, rounded canopies and greyish often brittle limbs. Leaves are divided into 4 to 8 reddish leaflets that mature into a bright, shiny green.
Trees need specific climatic requirements to thrive, including long hot summers with 60 to 65 inches of rain and cool dry winters with 100 to 200 hours of standard chilling to allow for significant flower initiation.
Additionally, young lychee trees are very susceptible to frost and wind damage within their first three years.
Once established, lychee trees typically bear fruit in their fourth year and increase yields as the tree matures. A major challenge of production is inconsistent fruiting from year to year.
Young trees should be pruned for ease of harvest and improved yields, though the optimal length for branches depends on variety. A quality lychee will be red, juicy, and free from brown discoloration, damage, or decay.