We are fortunate enough to live in an area where lychee grow abundantly, and every year there's an interesting spectacle down the street from our house. A neighbor has a lychee tree that blooms profusely, but this particular neighbor doesn't like the sweet, dimpled little fruit and generally treats the tree as a nuisance. Not so for the South Americans and Central Americans who also live nearby—when the tree goes into fruit, they arrive in a parade, bearing plastic bags they happily fill with the sweet, somewhat tangy fruit and take off to make drinks, jellies, and eat out of hand.
Like so many other tropical fruits, lychee is not a natural 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 one and grow the attractive little tree.
- 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: They prefer ample and regular water throughout the year. Lychee do not have a natural winter resting period, so 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 fines 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 are 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.
The 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.
The main lychee is the Litchi chinensis, which has been spread throughout the tropical world and bears the fruit people eat. There are many named varietals of lychee, which have been bred for certain qualities. In all likelihood, most indoor growers will sprout whatever seed they get.
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 are surprisingly tolerant to cold and can tolerate short blasts of almost-freezing weather, but they really prefer warmer temperatures.
In terms of 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. 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.