Lychee is a tropical broadleaf evergreen tree native to China, where it grows in a warm, humid climate. Although grown commercially for its fruit, in landscapes it is often used as a shade tree or a specimen fruit tree.
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). The plant, while requiring a subtropical climate, needs at least 100 chill hours in order to produce flowers that bear fruit. Still, it can be fun to sprout these seeds in an attempt to grow an attractive plant. Be aware that it can take around three to five years before this slow-growing tree bears fruit and ten years or more if it was grown from seed.
Because it needs subtropical 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. Planting is typically done in the spring after the risk of frost has passed. It is a slow-growing tree, taking as much as 30 years to reach 30 feet in height.
What Is Lychee Fruit?
The fruit of this tree consists of small, dimpled, fleshy drupes (clusters of three to 50 tiny fruits) 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. Trees usually do not produce fruit until they are at least three to five years old—it sometimes takes even longer. The fruit is usually eaten fresh or frozen and can be made into sauces, jam, puree, or preserves.
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|Common Name||Lychee, litchi|
|Bontanical Name||Litchi chinensis|
|Plant Type||Fruit, tree|
|Mature Size||20–110 ft. tall, 30-50 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Moist, well-drained|
|Flower Color||White, yellow, green|
|Hardiness Zones||10–11 (USDA)|
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. Lychees dislike wet feet.
Plant a lychee tree in a full sun location that is protected from wind, because this tree can be susceptible to wind damage. Spring planting, after any frosts have passed, is best.
Lychee Tree Care
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. Some research has shown that a mild drought stress in the fall and early winter can enhance flowering. Water young trees frequently, as soon as the soil feels dry. More established trees can be watered once a week.
Temperature and Humidity
Lychee is surprisingly tolerant of cold and can cope with short blasts of almost freezing weather, but it 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 once or twice during the growing season (spring and summer) with a weak liquid fertilizer.
Types of Lychee
Many different cultivars of lychee are used in different areas of the world. These are the most popular cultivars in the United States:
- 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.
Harvesting Lychee Fruit
Lychee trees usually take at least five years to mature before bearing any fruit, though it rare instances they may start producing fruit within three years. 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 clusters of three to 50 fruits, usually ripening in June to July, and sometimes into September. Allow them to ripen on the tree to a pink-red color. Do not harvest when the fruit is green, as it will not ripen further once harvested. 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.
A mature lychee growing in ideal circumstances may produce a copious amount of fruit, but they can be notoriously fickle about producing fruit. Unless the tree gets the requisite cold snap in the winter (32 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit for about 100 hours), it may not produce flowers or fruit at all for the normal summer harvest period. You can maximize the chances of flowers and future fruit by pruning off new growth immediately after the harvest is complete, which will stimulate new natural growth.
Potting and Repotting
Lychee often grows to 35 or 40 feet when planted in the landscape, but it can be maintained as small patio trees in warmer climates. In pots, the plants should be repotted every spring until they reach your ideal 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.
How to Grow Lychee From Seed
A home grower is more likely to start lychee from seed. To sprout seeds, first soak them for three days in water, then plant them in a 12-inch tall pot filled with well-draining potting soil. Cover them 1 inch deep with potting soil, keep them 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.
Common Pests and Plant Diseases
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.
Su Z, Xiao Q, Shen J, Chen H, Yan S, Huang W. Metabolomics analysis of litchi leaves during floral induction reveals metabolic improvement by stem girdling. Molecules. 2021;26(13):4048. doi:10.3390/molecules26134048
Tips on Getting Your Lychee Tree to Produce Fruit. Lychees Online.