Lychee is a tropical evergreen tree native to China, where it grows in a warm, wet climate. It bears small, dimpled fleshy fruits. 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, inside seed is poisonous and should be discarded (or planted). 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. Like many other tropical fruits, 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.
- Botanical Name: Litchi chinensis
- Common Name: Lychee, litchi
- Plant Type: Evergreen tree
- Mature Size: 30 to 100 feet tall outdoors, 10 feet indoors
- Sun Exposure: Full Sun
- Soil Type: Sandy or loam
- Soil pH: 5 to 5.5
- Bloom Time: Early spring
- Flower Color: White, yellow, green
- Hardiness Zones: 10, 11
- Native Area: Guangdong and Fujian provinces of Southern China (tropical)
How to Grow Lychee
Aside from its red, walnut-sized, and pebbly fruit, the lychee is actually a beautiful little tree with foot-long leaves. The new growth is reddish bronze in color and is highly attractive. To keep your lychee healthy, don't let it dry out and make sure the soil is slightly acidified.
Lychee thrive in full sun, but be aware that 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 do not like alkaline soils, so use a slightly acidic potting soil, perhaps with the addition of pine bark mulch or pine needles.
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.
Temperature and Humidity
Lychee is surprisingly tolerant to cold and can tolerate short blasts of almost-freezing weather, but they really prefer 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.
Potting and Repotting
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 in the field 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.
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:
- "Hak Ip"
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. The female flowers have to be pollinated in order to set fruit. In an orchard, pollination is done by insects, but you will have to hand-pollinate an indoor tree. The fruits will 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.
Toxicity of Lychee
The seed of the lychee is poisonous to humans as it contains a chemical that causes low blood sugar. This has resulted in outbreaks of serious sickness in undernourished children in India during lychee harvest time. Be sure to safely discard the seed and keep it away from accidental ingestion by children or pets.
Problems and Pests
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.