Spanish lime or Guinep is a Lychee (Litchi chinensis) relative originating in northern parts of South America. Nowadays it is found throughout Central American and the Caribbean, including the Florida Keys at the southernmost tip of the United States.
It can grow into a large tree reaching heights of up to 25 m (85 ft), though is more typically 9 to 18 m (30 to 60 ft) tall. On open sites, it develops a stout trunk, sometimes fluted on large trees, supporting a densely leafy rounded crown. The bark is grey and smooth.
The leaves are compound, made up of four, sometimes six, green leaflets arranged in pairs along the length. They are briefly deciduous in areas with a pronounced dry season but are otherwise evergreen, remaining on the tree in all seasons and in a dense arrangement that casts a deep shade.
The flowers are small, green-white, sweetly fragrant and with male and female flowers on separate trees, though some trees also have bi-sexual or perfect flowers mixed in. They are borne in finger-like clusters at the ends of the branches from spring to summer, coinciding with the transition from the dry to the rainy season in its native range.
The fertilised flowers are followed by small round fruit in clusters resembling bunches of large grapes. They ripening from mid-summer to early autumn and have a thin, leathery green skin enclosing translucent, jelly-like, orange pulp surrounding a large white seed, though double-seeded fruit are occasionally encountered. Fruit size varies depending on the variety and growing conditions, from 2 to 4 cm (0.75 to 1.5 in) in diameter.
The tree is cultivated primarily for its fruit, though its attractive form and dense, wide-spreading crown has led to it being planted as a shade and street tree in some areas.
The fruit is mostly eaten fresh out-of-hand. The thin leathery skin is easily split with the teeth or fingernail and torn off to expose the pulp which is sucked away from the seed in the mouth. The jelly-like pulp has a pleasing sweet to sub-acid flavour becoming slightly astringent close to the seed. Care is taken not to swallow the seed, which is large and may present a choking risk, particularly in small children. It is usually spat out after the pulp is sucked away.
It is reported as a major bee forage and nectar source in Jamaica, Cuba the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, with short but intense nectar flows from older trees. The pure honey is quite dark and acid but with a pleasing flavour.
It produces a pale yellow to pale brown, finely grained medium-weight wood, averaging out at about 790 kilograms per cubic meter (49 lbs per cubic ft), but with low natural resistance to rot, decay and wood-boring insects, which puts it in the non-durable hardwood class. Though not normally available, the larger logs can be sawn and used to make furniture and cabinets and the smaller roundwood pieces used for turnery and other woodcraft.
Grows and fruits naturally in moderately humid tropical monsoon and savanna climates, generally in areas with annual lows of 19 to 25 °C, annual highs of 28 to 34 °C, annual rainfall of 800 to 2500 mm and a dry season of 3 to 7 months.
New plants are commonly grown from seed. However, seedling trees do not start to bear fruit until they are around ten years old, whereas vegetatively reproduced trees start fruiting after four to five years. Grafting cuttings of selected cultivars onto ordinary seedling rootstock has given good results, as has air-layering (circumposing) techniques.
Vegetative reproduction is also the only way to known which plants are female and which male, as both are needed for good pollination and fruit production.
Performs best on free-draining clay, loam and sand soils of a moderately acid to alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 5.5 to 8.0 and on sites with full to partial sun exposure. It has good tolerance to drought and limestone soils.
The seed are reportedly dispersed by birds and bats in its native range and it is listed as a weed in at least one reference publication, but there does not appear to be any record of it anywhere as a serious weed or invasive species.
The large oval seed presents a choking risk, especially in small children and some parents make their children chew on the seed when eating the fruit.
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