Lychee has more than a two thousand year tradition of cultivation in China. Countless treatises and legends surround it. The tree is a beautiful ornamental, and when in fruit it speaks to the bounty of nature. The fruit are striking shades of red and yellow, with a delicate, sweet and aromatic flesh. It is indeed a fruit for the Emperors.
The lychee (Lichi chinensis) belongs to the Sapindacea family. This subtropical tree is native to South China. It can reach a height of 30-50 feet, producing an attractive canopy of bright green leaves.
Florida growers raise two main varieties: the early-season ‘Mauritius’ and the late-season ‘Brewster’. (In August 1992 most of the crops in Homestead, FL were devastated by Hurricane Andrew, which stripped the trees of limbs and leaves). Afterwards, growers replanted up to 500 acres producing almost half a million pounds of fruit/year. If you see lychees while driving around, stop to taste this wonderful fruit. They are available from the last week of May through the end of June.
Lychee fruits are somewhat round and pleasantly sweet. Most Americans know lychees only as syrupy canned fruit, missing the succulence and fragrance of this South Chinese delicacy. Lychee are normally eaten fresh, however, they can be frozen with or without the shell. They are rich in Potassium and Vitamin C.
To eat a lychee, peel the thin, warty leathery and spiky skin, pull the translucent white flesh from the glossy brown seed, and savor the texture and flavor reminiscent of a Muscat grape.
Lychee is among the best trees for South Florida landscapes. Available cultivars include:
- 'Kwai Mai Pink', a small tree, with consistent production in South Florida, produces small but delicious pink fruit.
- 'Bengal' is a large tree best suited to a larger garden. The fruiting is not consistent, but the large, dark red fruit are so flavorful they're worth waiting for.
- 'Emperor', is a small tree that grows best in acid soils. The extremely large fruit are superb.
- 'Early Large Red' produces excellent fruit with firm, sweet, flavorful flesh early in the season.
'Brewster' and 'Mauritius' are the cultivars most often grown in South Florida. Air-layered trees are preferred to seedlings, since they produce fruit much sooner.