Lychee is a tropical broadleaf evergreen tree native to China, where it grows in a warm, wet climate. Although grown commercially for its fruit, in landscapes it is often used as a shade tree or a specimen fruit tree.
The tree bears small, dimpled, fleshy fruit with a light, perfumed flavor. The outside of the fruit has a rough, pink-red skin that is inedible and the inside flesh is clear to white and sweet. The brown seed inside the fruit is poisonous and should be discarded (or planted). The fruit is usually eaten fresh or frozen and can be made into sauces, jam, puree, or preserves.
Like many other tropical fruits, such as avocado, lychee is not a natural choice for indoor gardeners. It's more of a novelty plant and will be unlikely to ever bear fruit or grow to maturity (unless you have a greenhouse). Still, it can be fun to sprout these seeds in an attempt to grow an attractive plant.
Because it needs tropical conditions, it is not a tree that can be grown across wide areas of North America. It can be successfully grown in warm states like Florida and sheltered locations in California.
|Botanical Name||Litchi chinensis|
|Common Names||Lychee, litchi|
|Plant Type||Broadleaf evergreen fruit tree|
|Mature Size||30 to 100 ft. tall outdoors, 10 ft. indoors|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Moist, fertile, well-drained soil|
|Soil pH||Acidic (5 to 5.5)|
|Bloom Time||Early spring|
|Flower Color||White, yellow, green|
|Hardiness Zones||10 to 11 (USDA)|
|Native Areas||Southern China|
|Toxicity||Unripe fruit can be toxic, but only if undernourished|
How to Plant Lychee Trees
Lychee trees are best planted at least 30 feet away from your home, other major structures, or other trees in your home landscape. Planting them too close can impact their growth and fruit harvest, particularly if they are shaded.
If you are in an area prone to flooding, planting the tree on a mound of soil can help to ensure water runoff.
Plant a lychee tree in a full sun location that is protected from wind, because this tree can be susceptible to wind damage.
Lychee Tree Care
This tree grows best in acidic, fertile soil that is moist and well-drained. The ideal climate is warm and humid, but with a short cool dry period that assists pollination and development of flowers and fruit.
To keep your lychee healthy, don't let it dry out, and make sure the soil is slightly acidified.
Lychee thrives in full sun, but be aware that the plants need to be acclimated. Young plants that are not used to full sun will suffer from sudden exposure to bright light, but once acclimated, they will definitely perform better.
Lychee does not like alkaline soils, so amending garden soil with pine bark or pine needles may be necessary. If you are trying to grow it as a potted plant, use slightly acidic potting soil.
These plants prefer ample and regular water throughout the year. Lychee does not have a natural winter resting period, so it will not benefit from a suspension of watering as do some other fruit trees.
Temperature and Humidity
Lychee is surprisingly tolerant of cold and can cope with short blasts of almost-freezing weather, but is really prefers warmer temperatures. To be brought to bloom, lychee needs to be exposed to cold temperatures (32 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit) for at least 100 hours in the winter. They will then bloom early in the spring and bear fruit in the early summer. These trees love high humidity.
Feed with a weak liquid fertilizer throughout the growing season. Cut fertilizer back to once a month or so in the winter.
Are Lychees Toxic?
Outbreaks of serious sickness in undernourished children in India have been reported during lychee harvest time. This has been linked to a chemical within the unripe fruit flesh and seeds called Methylene cyclopropyl-glycine (MCPG).
When combined with low blood sugar levels this can cause a brain fever referred to as Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (AES). It can bring on fever, vomiting, seizures, and loss of consciousness and is problematic for young, malnourished children.
However, providing children only eat ripe lychee in moderation and they are not suffering from being undernourished, this should not be a cause for concern.
Varieties of Lychee
Many different cultivars of lychee are used in different areas of the world. The most popular cultivars in the U.S. include:
- Litchi chinensis 'Mauritius' has excellent fleshy fruit with just one large seed. It is a good choice if fruit production is your main goal.
- L. chinensis 'Brewster' is a vigorous growing tree with a spreading upright habit. It is well suited for areas that get a lot of moisture. It is also a good cultivar for fruit production.
- L. chinensis 'Emperor' is considered one of the best container varieties, as it is a slow-growing tree with a compact growth habit. It requires less water than other varieties.
Lychee trees will take at least five years to mature before bearing any fruit. You must expose the tree to cold temperatures for at least 100 hours in the winter if you want it to bloom and then bear fruit, and the female flowers have to be pollinated. In an orchard, pollination is done by insects, but for indoor trees, you will have to hand-pollinate.
The fruits of the lychee grow in bunches. Allow them to ripen on the tree to a pink-red color. You can test one fruit in a bunch to see if it is sweet enough. Cut the entire bunch of fruit close to the branch to harvest.
How to Grow Lychee Trees in Pots
Lychee can be maintained as small patio trees in warmer climes or grown into 35- or 40-foot trees in the ground.
In pots, the plants should be repotted every spring until they reach your maximum growing size. To help keep the plant smaller, aggressively prune the main growing trunks annually to encourage a smaller, bushier plant.
Lychee is typically propagated commercially by air-layering. This a sophisticated technique where growers make a cut into a thin branch and then surround it with a packet of moist moss or soil. Roots will form in the cut area, allowing the grower to cut off the whole branch and plant it as a small tree.
A home grower is more likely to start lychee from seed. To sprout seeds, cover them with potting soil, keep warm and moist, and wait for sprouts to emerge (which can take weeks). Once they've sprouted, move to a sunnier spot after a few weeks.
Keep a lookout for mealybugs, aphids, and mites. Signs of infestation include tiny webs on plants, clumps of white "powdery" residue, or visible insects on the plant. A product like Pyrethrum is made to control aphids and pests that flock to fruit trees. Spray it on the lychee per the product directions and it should kill the pests on contact. Treat infestations as soon as possible to prevent them from spreading to the rest of your collection.
Spencer PS, Palmer VS. The enigma of litchi toxicity: an emerging health concern in southern Asia. The Lancet Global Health. 2017;5(4):e383-e384.