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Growing Lychee: Litchi chinensis

Botanical Overview

A member of the Soapberry family (Sapindaceae), and the sole member of the litchi genus, Lychee (pronounced lee-chee) has nearly one hundred cultivars in various parts of the world. They have a pleasant flavor when fresh and are very popular in Asia.

Description

Form: Round-topped tree.
Lifespan: More than 100 productive years. Some specimens in China are said to be over 1000 years old.
Leaf retention: Evergreen.
Growth rate: Slow.
Mature Size: Usually 20-30' high and nearly as wide. These trees can reach 50-100' in the tropics.
Flowers: Small, without petals, 6-7 stamens, clustered in panicles at the end of branches. The flowers are of three types: male, hermaphrodite behaving as female, or hermaphrodite behaving as male, appearing either simultaneously or sequentially.
Bloom: Late winter or spring. Some lychee cultivars are prone to bloom and fruit heavily, then lightly, in alternate years.
Self-fruitful: Yes, but an insect pollinator is needed. Withholding fertilizer, or substantially reducing water is often practiced before and during bloom to force fruiting of these rather capricious flowers.
Years before fruiting: 3-5 years for air-layered plants, rooted cuttings and cutting-grafted plants. Trees grown from seed can take 8-20 years. It takes 20-40 years before peak fruit production is reached.
Fruit: Rough, brittle, red skin with a spiny strawberry appearance, 1-2" in diameter. Easily peeled once a tear has started. The flesh is sweet, fragrant, white-translucent, and gelatinous. It does not adhere to the single, inedible, dark seed.
Months for fruit to ripen: 4-5 months when irrigation is stopped about 2-3 weeks before harvest. A vivid pink or red skin color and a slight, springy give under pressure indicates ripeness. If the fruit is too soft it will be overripe. Lychees do not ripen further after harvest. The fruit is removed from the tree by cutting the branch just above the panicle bearing the fruits. Harvesting should be done in the early morning or late afternoon to maximize water content.
Storage after harvest: Fresh lychees should be eaten within one day after harvest, or they will dehydrate. Stored in the refrigerator in sealed plastic bags to prevent moisture loss, they can last up to one week. Lychees can also be frozen, skin on, in sealed plastic bags. While frozen, then skinned, they taste like lychee sorbet.
At room temperature, after a few days, the skin turns brown, brittle and hard, and the flesh dries, shrivels, and develops a musky, but still edible, flavor. Various practices are used to dry lychees. One is to shade dry for two days, then sun dry for two weeks, bringing the fruit in at nights and during rain. Dried fruit can be stored for about one year at room temperature.
Leaves: Dark green on top, gray-green on bottom, 2-3" long, lance-shaped, smooth, glossy, leaflets. New leaves are light green or reddish. The tree provides dense shade. Young trees may produce five vegetative flushes per year under ideal growing conditions.
Stems: No thorns.
Roots: Air layered trees and rooted cuttings have fibrous, lateral roots which can extend beyond the drip line and can extend 7' deep. Trees or rootstock grown from seed have tap roots as well as lateral roots.
Wildlife: The flowers attract pollinating insects, and the fruit attracts small mammals like squirrels, birds and fruit bats.
Toxic / Danger: The seeds are mildly toxic. The fruit contains tiny amounts of hypoglycin, a toxin that reduces the body's ability to make glucose and can lead to low blood sugar. Malnourished children should not eat this fruit on an empty stomach.
Origin: Southeastern China.

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By B.navez - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid-1463941

Cultivation and Uses

USDA hardiness zones: 9b-11. Young trees do not tolerate temperatures below 32°F, but after three years, can withstand short intervals to 25°F. A warm, wet spring and summer followed by a cool, dry fall and winter provide the best climate for Lychee production.
Chill hours: 100-200.
Heat tolerant: This tree becomes more heat tolerant with age. During its first three years in the ground it will be water stressed above 90°F and need protection from hot dry wind. Growing in a walled garden with wetted mulch is recommended. Lychees need temperatures in the 80-89°F range for best fruit production.
Drought tolerant: No.
Sun: During its first three years, it will need filtered morning sun with full shade the rest of the day, especially in the afternoon at high temperatures. After three years it will be able to tolerate more sun. Parts of the tree in full shade will not bear fruit.
Planting: New growth is delicate and the tree must be located in an area protected from strong winds. This tree can be grown in a container but will do better in the ground.
Soil: Very well draining, medium to high organic content. The tree tolerates pH 5.0-8.5 (strongly acidic to alkaline) but performs best between 5.6-6.5 (acidic to slightly acidic).
Fertilize: Lychees are very sensitive to salt, so use organic fertilizers only. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers in the first five years which can burn the roots. This plant is subject to iron chlorosis, especially in non-acidic soil, so chelated iron should be added late winter. Other minor nutrients, supplied by a citrus micronutrient solution, should also be added in non-acidic soil. After five years in the ground, the nitrogen available in the fertilizer can be increased as the tree becomes a heavy feeder.
Water after becoming established: Basin irrigate two to three times a week spring to mid-fall. This plant prefers a humid, low wind environment. Watering is reduced in the spring to encourage blooming, then increased very gradually after fruit set to avoid fruit drop that occurs with sudden water increases. These trees can stand flooding provided the water dissipates within a couple of days. Constant wet soil reduces growth rate and size.
Mulch: Spread organic mulch under the canopy and 8" away from the trunk to retain moisture and protect roots from temperature extremes.
First Year Care: Provide a windbreak such as a block wall to avoid wind damage to delicate young leaves and stems. Water every other day to keep the soil slightly moist but not wet.
Prune: After harvest, prune yearly to reduce the tree's height so the tree will be easy to protect from freezes and harvest will be easier. Clipping branch tips after harvest will spur growth for the next year's crop. Prune to shape in the first three years. Allow branching to start 3' off the ground. Grass and other plants under the canopy, which compete for nutrients, should be removed by hand. Using a tool to remove weeds will damage tree roots near the surface.
Litter: Fruit drop if not harvested.
Propagation: Air layering is most common. Softwood cuttings allowed to root in a high humidity enclosure take four months or more. Modified top-wedge grafting, developed at the USDA / ARS National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Hilo, Hawaii, can be performed, however, not all cultivars are graft-compatible. Trees grown from seed do not breed true and are best suited for rootstock. Seedlings grow rapidly until they reach 8", then slow down, and may take years to resume growth.
Uses: Edible fruit, ornamental.

Comments

Lychee is one of the most microclimate-sensitive fruit trees in nature. It is difficult to grow in hot, dry regions because of its need for acidic, highly organic, moist soil, protection from freezing temperatures and hot wind when young, and dry, cool winters followed by wet, hot summers. Within the United States, it grows most easily in southern Florida, Hawaii, and parts of California.
This tree can benefit from growing in a garden designed for tropical fruit.


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Latest update: September, 2020