Although commonly only associated with southern China, the natural range of this well-known fruit tree actually extends beyond China into neighbouring Vietnam and the Philippines.
It is typically a small to medium-sized tree 8 to 15 m (26 to 50 ft) tall, though may reach up to 25 m (82 ft) in some varieties and forms a short, single or forked trunk supporting a densely leafy rounded crown. The bark is grey-brown and slightly rough.
The leaves are compound, being made up of four to ten oval to lance-shaped leaflets, each 5 to 8 cm (2 to 3 in) long, arranged in pairs along the length. They emerge bronze-red, become lime green then dark glossy green with a soft, leathery texture and remain on the tree in all seasons.
The flowers are small, creamy-white and are borne on branched clusters at the ends of the branches. They come into bloom in spring and are unisex, with separate female and male flowers on the same cluster. Fertilised female flowers are followed by round to egg-shaped fruit, 2.5 to 4 cm (1 to 1.6 in) long, depending on the variety, with thin, warty green skin, becoming pink-red to red when ripe. The pulp is near white, juicy and surrounds a single oval, glossy brown seed.
It is cultivated for it fruit, which are at their best eaten ripe and fresh out-of-hand. The thin, brittle skin is easily peeled away and the pulp is eaten after removing the seed, which is not edible and is discarded. The pulp is juicy, smooth, melting and has an agreeable sweet-acid flavour. Besides being eaten out-of-hand, the pulp is used as a flavouring in chilled drinks, dairy desserts such as ice cream and yoghurt and in fruit sauces. Surplus pulp is commonly canned in syrup, mostly in China and India, or is dried or puréed and frozen.
It is reported as a major honey plant in China, India, Mauritius, Thailand and Taiwan and as a minor honey plant in South African and Florida. Yields are moderate and range from 7 to 27 kgs (15 to 60 lbs) per colony per season. The honey is light golden in colour, sometimes with a reddish tinge, or dark in dry years and slightly acid in flavour. After several months it starts to granulate to a medium grain.
Lychee is one of the most climate-sensitive fruit trees and selection of the wrong variety for an area can result in sporadic or no fruiting. Generally, the tree needs cool, dry conditions during flowering for good flowering to occur and the amount of chilling required is largely dependent on the variety. Some selected varieties and their chilling requirements are listed below.
Its cultivation is most suitable in moderately humid to humid subtropical and tropical mid- to high-elevation climates, generally in frost-free areas with annual lows of 15 to 19 °C, annual highs of 23 to 32 °C, annual rainfall of 1100 to 4000 mm and a dry season of 4 months or less.
Lychee can also be cultivated with irrigation in areas with low rainfall and a long dry season. In fact, most lychee cultivation in India is with irrigation and the centre of Indian lychee cultivation, Muzaffarpur, in Bihar state, experiences a dry season of 7 months.
High chill varieties suited to subtropical climates include 'Brewster', 'Kwai May Pink' (aka. 'Bosworth 3'), 'No Mai Tsz’, 'Sah Keng', 'Salathial', 'Shahi' and 'Wai Chee'.
Low chill varieties for warm subtropical and cool-winter tropical climates include 'San Ye Hong', 'Kaimana', 'Groff', 'Souey Tung', 'Kwai Mi' (aka. 'Mauritius' and 'Tai So') and ‘Fei Zi Xiao’.
Less common are tropical lowlands varieties, such as 'Kom' (or 'Khom'), 'Luk Lai', 'Sampao Kaow', 'Kalake Bai Yaow' and 'Red China', all of which originate from Thailand. These varieties produce fruit in climates warmer than described above but lack the depth of flavour of cool climate varieties and therefore may not be widely appreciated.
New plants are usually produced vegetatively (using air-layering or circumposing techniques) because seedling plants start to bear fruit much later and may not come true to type. Seedling plants are instead used mostly for rootstock onto which selected varieties are grafted.
The seed lose their viability quickly and should be planted within a few hours of being extracted from the fruit, as they are unlikely to sprout after they have started to dry. Seedlings grow quickly and develop a long taproot that will become root-bound if kept in a container for too long.
Performs best on rich, deep, free-draining clay and loam soils of a moderately acid to slightly alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 5.0 to 7.5, and on sites with full to partial sun exposure. It has poor tolerance to slow-draining and strongly alkaline soils.
Fruit yields vary by variety, tree age, tree size and cultivation practice. Average yields reported for trees in South Florida range from 23 to 113 kgs (50 to 250 lbs) of fruit per tree per year.
The seed germinate readily but are large are not easily dispersed. Despite its widespread introduction and cultivation, there does not appear to be any reports of it becoming a serious weed or invasive species.
It is assessed as a low weed risk species for Hawaii and Florida, respectively by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA) and the IFAS Assessment of Non-Native Plants in Florida's Natural Areas. However, it is reported as naturalised in northern and central India and in the Kruger National Park, in South Africa.
The overripe fruit fall to the ground creating a messy litter.
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