Lychee is an exotic evergreen tree that can reach 40 feet in height.1 It produces red ovoid fruits with white flesh, a single large seed, and a tough, “bumpy,” easily peeled skin. As noted by The Spruce,2 “The fruit has a light, perfume-like flavor. It is usually eaten fresh or frozen and can be made into sauces, jam, puree or preserves.”
The seed is poisonous and should not be eaten. A chemical in the seed causes low blood sugar, which is why outbreaks of severe illness (and even deaths) among malnourished children during harvest time are common in areas like India. Discard seeds safety to make sure they won’t accidentally be eaten by children or pets.
The first mention of lychee is found in Chinese literature dated 1059 A.D. Lychee production took root in Burma in the 1600s and India a century later; the West Indies in 1775, and in French and English greenhouses by the 19th century.3 Today, lychee is grown in subtropical and tropical areas around the world.4
Lychee yields can be fairly large, although most trees will produce bountiful yields only one year out of every three.5 According to the University of Florida’s horticulture department,6 “Reliable bearing and highest production occurs in subtropical and Mediterranean-type climates. Areas with significant altitude may also be productive.”
Propagating lychee from seed
If you’re in plant hardiness zones 10 or 11, you can grow lychee outdoors in your garden. Lychee grown indoors will rarely produce fruit due to the lack of sunlight. The video above demonstrates how to propagate lychee from seed. Here are some basics:7,8
- Select one or more large seeds and rinse off any remaining pulp.
- Fill a pot with sandy soil and dampen with water. Press the seeds, “eye” up, into the sand, just low enough to cover them with a light layer of soil. Make sure the pot has good drainage. Place in a warm, shady location. To speed sprouting, enclose the pot in a clear plastic bag. Sprouting will occur in approximately two weeks.
- Once sprouted, remove the bag from the pot and move it to a more brightly lit — but not directly sunlit — area.
- Once the seedling has sprouted four leaves, transplant it into its own pot (if you sprouted several together). According to the University of Florida (UF),9 lychee grows best “in acid sands with moderate organic matter content.” SF Gate suggests repotting using African violet potting soil.10 Soil should be kept damp but not soggy.
- After about one month’s growth, gradually increase the amount of sunlight the seedling is exposed to.
Outdoor planting guidelines for lychee
Its permanent location should receive full sun for most of the day. If kept potted indoors, place it near a south-facing window. Outdoors, plant it at least 25 to 30 feet from buildings and other trees, as shading will diminish fruit production. Well-cured compost is recommended from the drip-line to within 6 inches of the trunk, and mulch will help retain soil moisture and reduce weed growth.
Trees younger than 4 years will need 0.25 to 0.5 pounds of complete fertilizer every eight weeks. UF recommends using a mixture containing 6% to 8% nitrogen, 2% to 4% phosphorus, 6% to 8% potash, and 3% to 4% magnesium.
If your soil has either acid or neutral pH, consider adding dry applications of manganese, zinc and iron two to four times during growing season, March through November. If your soil has a high pH, use a foliar application of manganese and zinc. Additional specifics can be found in UF’s lychee growing guide.11 Avoid fertilizing during fall and winter.
To bloom, the tree will require at least 100 chill hours (between 32 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit) during the winter. Lychee will bloom in early spring and fruit in late spring/early summer, although most trees will not bloom or produce fruit until they’re about 5 years old.
While well-established lychees are moderately drought-resistant, new lychee trees need to have a regular water supply. Flooding may adversely affect growth and fruit yield, however. Planting them on mounds or elevated beds is recommended if the region is prone to flooding. Once fully established, the tree will typically thrive without supplemental irrigation.
Areas with strong winds may be a challenging location for lychee tree growth as it may cause tattered leaves and stunted growth. It’s best that lychee trees are planted in wind-protected areas or placed where they would be covered by surrounding trees.
Health benefits of lychee
Tea made from lychee peel is said to treat chickenpox and diarrhea. In India, parts of the bark, root and lychee flowers are gargled for sore throat. According to the book, “Lychee Disease Management”:12
“The pericarp [skin] of lychee possesses antitussive, analgesic, antipyretic, hemostatic and diuretic properties … The flesh of the lychee helps to overcome tiredness and prevent bronchocele, and its skin is used to treat animal bites. The compounds present in lychee possess different biological activities that include antiviral, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.”
One of this fruit’s most plentiful and unique nutrients is oligonol, which contains a number of valuable antioxidants with the ability to fight flu viruses13 and protect the skin from UV ray damage.14 The fruit is loaded with vitamin C, which also helps protect you against the common cold and other infections, and quenches inflammation.15 Other nutrients include:16
For all their benefits, lychee fruits are best consumed in moderation as they also contain fructose (along with glucose and sucrose), which may be harmful to your health in excessive amounts.19 A 3.5-ounce serving contains an estimated 16.5 grams of sugar.
There have also been reports20 of allergies associated with eating lychee fruit, including anaphylactic reactions. While the seeds are generally considered toxic, scientists have found the seeds have certain anticancer properties.
A study21 published in 2012 found lychee seed extract, rich in polyphenols, “significantly induced apoptotic cell death in a dose-dependent manner and arrested cell cycle in … colorectal carcinoma cells.”
A study22 published in the journal Cancer Letters in 2006 found lychee fruit pericarp (skin) extract inhibited hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer, both in vitro and in vivo, altering proliferation and inducing cell death in this cancer type. For more information, see “10 Amazing health benefits of lychee fruit.”
Picking, storing and eating lychee fruit
The fruit are ripe once they’ve turned from deep green to pink-red or plum (depending on your variety), and the skin gives way a bit but not all the way when squeezed lightly between the fingers. Fresh lychees also exude a distinct lush, sweet fragrance.
To pick it, either twist to break the stem right at the natural abscission zone or, using shears, cut the fruit off, leaving a short stem. Using either a dull knife or even a fingernail, punch through the skin and peel off.
Browning of the skin is an indication of water loss, but in its early stages, this is more cosmetic than anything.23 The flesh inside will still be juicy. Over time, however, the flesh will also begin to dry out. After picking, the skin starts to turn brown within a day or so, so they need to be consumed rather quickly.
Refrigeration will help slow the dehydration process, but excessively cold temperatures will damage the fruit so do not freeze.24 To increase shelf life, you can dehydrate them by leaving the stems on the clusters and simply letting the clusters hang in an air-conditioned room.25 Once dried, the skins will be dark brown and brittle. Stored in a jar or tin at room temperature, flavor and texture will remain unchanged for up to a year.
Fresh or dried, lychees can be chopped into fruit or green salads. Stuffed lychees also make for a delicious dessert.26 For more ideas on food uses, see Julia F. Morton’s “Fruits of warm climates,” which can be found on Purdue University’s website. 27