Lychee, also spelled litchi, is a tropical tree native to China. It grows in warm, tropical, wet climate. Like so 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 if you happen to get a young tree and attempt to grow this attractive plant.
Lychee Tree and Fruit
Cultivated in the Guangdong and Fujian provinces of China since 1059 A.D., the lychee tree is referred to as Litchi chinensis in botanical terms.
It can grow to be a tall evergreen tree. It bears small, dimpled fleshy fruits. The outside of the fruit has a rough, pink-red skin that is inedible, the inside flesh is clear to white colored 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. The fruit flesh may be frozen, made into sauces, jam, puree, or preserves. When frozen, the lychee tastes similar to sorbet.
Ideal Growing Conditions
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.
- Light: 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.
- Water: 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.
- Soil: Lychee do not like alkaline soils, so use a slightly acidic potting soil, perhaps with the addition of pine bark mulch or pine needles.
- Fertilizer: Feed with a weak liquid fertilizer throughout the growing season. Cut fertilizer back to once a month or so in the winter.
Lychee is typically propagated in the field by air-layering, 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.
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 are surprisingly tolerant to cold and can tolerate short blasts of almost-freezing weather, but they really prefer warmer temperatures.
Treat infestations as soon as possible to prevent them from spreading to the rest of your collection. As always, start with the least toxic treatment option first, only progressing to more serious chemicals if your initial efforts fail.