Definitely contrasting, lychee fruits that resemble reddish-warted eggs are juicy and sweet-fleshed on the inside. With origins in China, this subtropical fruiting tree slowly was carried around the world to different growing regions. Surprisingly, lychee trees grow and fruit their best if they endure a cool, dry winter: a situation often lacking in the lands closest to the equator. Even without fruits, this tree is ornamental and stately in form.
Lychee is native to southeastern Asia, from southern China to the western edges of Malaysia where the climate is hot, humid and rainy with a distinct, drier and cooler but frost-free winter.
Margaret Barwich, author of "Tropical and Subtropical Trees," notes that litchi fruits have been cultivated for thousands of years, so much that wild forms of the trees were rarely used. In 1079, a Chinese scholar wrote of specific cultivated varieties, or cultivars, grown in southern China. In the 17th century, lychees were cultivated in Burma and soon thereafter India. European colonizers carried the plants to Europe, especially France and England, for greenhouse culture, and by the 18th century lychee trees grew in the West Indies. In the United States, lychees grew first in Hawaii in 1873, then Florida in 1883 and California in 1897.
This slow-growing evergreen tree has dark green leaves with pale undersides. New growth emerges in spring a lovely coppery pink color and matures to green, long oval leaves with pointy tips. Also in spring appear the clusters of tiny greenish-white flowers that are pollinated by honeybees. By midsummer the fruits reach ripeness, the size of chicken eggs, with warty rosy-pink to salmon-red skin. Inside the fruit is a large, smooth black seed surrounded by sweet, succulent, opaque white flesh that is delectable. Most trees reach peak fruit-producing age around 20 to 40 years, and trees over 100 years of age exist. Large trees can max-out at 40 to 60 feet high with a similarly broad, rounded canopy.
Tolerant of chill only down to 28 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit, lychee trees prosper in subtropical climates with distinctive wet and dry seasons. Summer is hot, humid and rainy while winter is warm to cool with markedly less rain. Grow them in full sun, at least eight hours of direct sunshine daily, in a sandy or loam soil that is moist, well-draining and not alkaline in pH. Organic mulch and compost over the soil is beneficial. Lychee grows well only in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 10 and 11.
The fruits may be eaten fresh, frozen or dried in the skin and eaten like raisins.
Besides an excellent fruit source in a subtropical orchard, lychee is an attractive, slow-growing evergreen tree. Varieties that mature to shorter heights are particularly good as a small shade ornamental tree in yards. Research into the many varieties of lychee presents options for espaliers, container plantings or for growing in conservatories or sunny atriums. Fruit flavors and sizes also differ according to variety.