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Growing Lychees: Litchi chinensis

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A member of the Soapberry family, and the sole member of the litchi genus, Lychees (pronounced lee-chee) occur in three varieties (subspecies) with only L. chinensis var. chinensis being commercialized. Nearly one hundred cultivars have been developed in various parts of the world. They have an addictive flavor when fresh and are very popular in Asia.


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 30' high and nearly as wide. These trees can reach 50-100' under ideal conditions.
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. The pollen is often defective.
Bloom: Late winter or spring. Lychee cultivars often bloom and fruit heavily, then lightly, in alternate years.
Self-fruitful: Yes, but an insect pollinator is needed. Withholding fertilizer or water is often practiced before and during bloom to force fruiting of these rather capricious flowers.
Years before fruiting: 4-5 years for air-layered and cutting-grafted plants. Trees grown from seed can take 10-25 years.
Fruit: Rough, brittle, red skin with a spiny strawberry appearance, 1-2" in diameter. Easily peeled once a tear has started. The flesh is juicy, 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 red skin color and minimum size is a good indication of ripeness. 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.
Stems: No thorns.
Roots: Seedling and grafted trees at maturity have tap roots as well as lateral roots. Air layered trees have shallow, fibrous lateral roots which can extend beyond the drip line.
Cultivars of Note:
'Brewster' Large fruit with a large seed, best in taste tests.
'Sweet Heart' Large, heart shaped fruit with small (chicken tongue) seeds, high quality fruit, reliable producer.
Wildlife: The flowers attract pollinating insects, and the fruit attracts mammals, especially squirrels, and birds.
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: Southern China and Asia. Cultivated for more than 2000 years.

Lychee: Litchi chinensis - fruit

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: No. These trees are water stressed above 90°F. Young trees are intolerant of hot, dry air and need constant moisture and protection from wind in the hottest months. Some trees in India are provided overhead sprinklers in the summer. They need temperatures in the 80-89°F. range for best fruit production.
Sun: Full sun for maximum fruit production. Filtered all day shade, especially afternoon shade, is needed in regions with high summer temperatures, limiting productivity.
Drought tolerant: Temperature dependant. Not above 90°F.
Water after becoming established: Once or twice a week spring to mid-fall, assuming a humid landscape with average rainfall.
Soil: Very well drained, medium to high organic content, pH 5.6-7.0 (acidic to near-neutral). Add a mycorrhizal fungi mix to the hole before planting or plant in an area where other trees have previously grown.
Fertilize: Lychees are very sensitive to salt, so use an organic fertilizer.
Mulch: A thick layer of compost and organic mulch will protect the roots from heat and also provide fertilizer as it decomposes. Keep mulch 8" away from the trunk in regions with frequent rains.
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.
First Year Care: Water every other day, taking summer rains into account.
Prune: After harvest, consider pruning yearly to reduce the tree's height so the fruit will be accessible. After pruning to shape in the first three years, further pruning can be limited to clipping branch tips during harvest which is sufficient to spur growth for the next year's crop.
Litter: Fruit drop if not harvested.
Propagation: Air layering is most common, then cuttings and grafting. Trees grown from seed often do not breed true.
Uses: Ornamental, edible fruit.


This is a difficult tree to grow in hot, dry regions and fruit production is limited by the need for filtered shade. Parts of the tree in full shade will not bear fruit.

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Latest update: December, 2018