Native to the sub-tropical regions of China, the lychee tree is a member of the Sapindaceae, or “soap berry,” family that produces a sweet and delicious fruit know by the same name. Lychee trees can grow quite tall, with some wild trees growing upwards of 100 feet and producing as much as 800 lbs of fruit per year! Your backyard variety, however, will produce smaller quantities, usually between 15 to 350 pounds. The lychee tree originally made its way from China to the US via ships to Hawaii and can be found growing there, as well as along the Gulf Coast and in parts of southern California, today. Although fruit may come in different shapes, colors, and sizes depending on the varietal, most are either round or oval and have a pink, green, or red shell protecting the sweet, white flesh inside.
The Emperor varietal is a lychee-lover’s dream come true as it produces the largest fruit out of all the tree types, sometimes generating lychees the size of golf balls! Considering how large its berries can grow, the Emperor tree is surprisingly compact and is great for growing in a greenhouse or in a container, which for most folks will be necessary unless you live in the south of Florida or southern California. Emperor trees are reliable producers and growers can expect fruit most years, but should not be surprised if every four years or so, their trees don’t produce. This is a normal occurrence, so just care for your trees as usual and you will likely be blessed with a fresh lychee crop again the following season!
Seed: Not recommended since it’s quite difficult and usually takes 25 years to produce fruit. If you’re the adventurous type and wanna try it out, go for it! And let us know how it goes.
Seed Depth: 1″
Space Between Plants: 25′
Space Between Rows: Separate 4″ container pots to be transplanted later. Lychees need about 25 feet between plants.
Germination Soil Temperature: 65–75°F
Days for Germination: 14–21 days
Sow Indoors: Sow indoors a couple weeks before last frost. Plants need to be gradually exposed to sunlight, so keep in a shady location indoors and slowly introduce more sun as the plant matures.
Sow Outdoors: Transplant a lychee tree in spring to a location with partial shade when all danger of frost has passed.
Vegetative: For a quicker harvest, we recommend starting plants from cuttings or air layering. To do this, strip a ring of bark about an inch in width from a large shoot on a mature tree. Wrap this area with sphagnum moss and cover with perforated plastic or burlap. After two to three months of moderate watering, this area on the branch should start to sprout roots. Cut the branch just below the root ball and soak the root ball for 15 minutes in water before transplanting to either a pot or your garden. Plant in an area with partial shade.
As this tree is endemic to the warmer regions of southern China, it should only be planted outdoors in USDA Zones 9 through 11. While it does prefer warmer temperatures, lychee trees thrive in areas that experience cooler temperatures (between 30 and 40°F in the winter) as this “hardens” the plant. However, keep in mind that temperatures of less than 30°F for more than a couple days can kill the lychee tree, so if you live in a region with cold winters, planting outdoors is not recommended.
Natural: When young, seedlings should be kept in the shade and gradually introduced to sunlight as they get older, avoiding direct sunlight until the plant begins to reach maturity.
Artificial: If starting your tree indoors, start cuttings or seeds in a dark area and move to indirect sunlight as they begin to grow. As the plant matures, LED lights will suffice until flowers begin to appear. Following flowering, switching to HID lights will help encourage fruit production.
Soil: Will grow in a wide range of soils but prefers soil that is slightly heavy in clay. However, too much clay can hinder water drainage and cause root rot, so if your soil is extremely dense, mix in a fertilizer-free, light potting soil or compost. A pH of 5.5 to 7.5, with an ideal range of 6 to 7, will help keep plants healthy and happy.
Soilless: As lychee roots can be extremely sensitive, a potting soil mix without any artificial components is recommended. Try mixes with natural elements such as coco coir, bone meal, guano, and/or peat moss.
Aeroponics: Because it’s quite difficult, growing lychee trees using an aeroponic system is not recommended for the beginner gardener.
Water: Requires moderate to high levels of water. Keeping the soil wet is important, particularly in the early stages of growth and during flowering. Once your plant has become established, it’ll be able to withstand short periods of dryness. Take note that lychee hates standing water, so make sure your soil has good drainage.
Nutrients: Avoid giving your tree artificial fertilizers in the early stages of growth as this can burn the roots and kill your plant. Mix in an organic compost before planting and compost once a month until your plant becomes mature. Once mature, your plant can be given applications of a balanced nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium mix a couple times a year, with one light application right after harvesting. Do not fertilize again until fruit production begins the following year.
Foliar: Application of an iron-based foliar after harvest will help your plant stay healthy and happy. A balanced organic spray such as sea kelp may also be applied monthly during the summer months if desired.
Pruning: Cut back old growth and dead branches after harvesting your fruits.
Mulching: An organic mulch of wood chips or grass clippings can help protect your lychee tree’s sensitive roots and keep it steady in windy weather. Place a 4″ layer of mulch around the tree from the drip line to about 6″ away from the trunk to prevent rotting.
Deficiency(s): If leaves are fading or bronzing, it’s likely that your plant is experiencing a zinc deficiency. Apply a foliar spray of zinc to remedy.
Companions: Will grow well with most other plants, but keep in mind that planting trees too close together can cause crowding and competition for sunlight and resources. Planting with herbs such as oregano can help confuse pests.
Harvest: Although a vibrantly-colored shell is usually a good indicator of lychee ripeness, the best way to decide if a plant is ready to be harvested is through taste. If the flesh is sweet and juicy, it’s time to pick! Note that fruit left on the tree will become very dark in color and will lose their flavor. To harvest, clip the branch on which the fruit is hanging, leaving a small stem to help preserve freshness. Lychee may be harvested by pulling the fruit off the branch; however, this will generally cause the shell to break open and demand immediate consumption (oh darn!). The time to harvest lychee will vary based on location, but in most places in the US, harvesting occurs in the late spring and early summer.
Storage: To prolong the life of your fruit, do not peel until ready to consume. Keeping lychees in a plastic bag in the refrigerator will keep them fresh for up to a week.
History:The lychee fruit has been highly valued in Chinese society for thousands of years and one can find many stories and legends of the lychee throughout the country’s history. One such story concerns the emperor Tang Ming Huang and his consort, Lady Yang. According to legend, Lady Yang had an affinity for the lychee fruit which came from the southern provinces of the country. So enamored was the emperor with his lady that he had subjects perform what can only be considered a relay on horseback, to and from the south, to make sure that his lady had constant access to this fresh fruit. Talk about service!
Preserve: Although they are most commonly eaten fresh, lychee fruit will naturally dehydrate if hung by their stems in a dry location. Dried lychee looks similar to raisins and can be eaten in the same way. Lychee fruit may also be frozen. To freeze lychee, peel the fruit and remove the seeds. Place in freezer bags. Lychee fruit is actually quite delicious frozen but can also be defrosted in warm water.
Prepare: To prepare lychee, peel off the skin and either cut the flesh away from the seed or suck the fruit off of the seed. Lychee is most commonly added raw to dishes.
Nutritional: Aside from being delicious, the lychee fruit is actually also quite nutritious. It contains various vitamins such as B, B-6, and C, as well as trace amounts of thiamin, folates, and nicacin. It furthermore possesses small amounts of potassium and phosphorous and moderate levels of antioxidants.
Medicinal: This fruit has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to calm the stomach and remedy minor maladies such as diarrhea and stomach cramps. The roots and the bark of the tree are also used in teas to help alleviate sore throats and coughs. Because of its high content of antioxidants, lychee has been tentatively connected to preventing certain types of cancers, such as colo-rectal.
The lychee fruit has only recently garnered attention in the states and mostly it’s been due to the use of lychee in tasty cocktails like this Lychee Martini. Naturally sweet and refreshing, it’s the perfect libation for a warm summer night spent with friends.