IUCN threat status:

Vulnerable (VU)

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Litchi chinensis (previously classified as Nephelium litchi), lychee or lychee fruit (alternate spellings include leechee, lichi, and litchi) is a tropical evergreen tree in the Sapindaceae (soapberry family) that originated in southeastern Asia (from China to the Phillipines and west to India) and cultivated in China for over 2,100 years. It is now grown in tropical and semi-tropical regions worldwide for its white-fleshed, musk-flavored fruit, which is highly prized in China. They are sometimes erroneously called “litchi nuts” because their skin is very hard when dried, but they are not actually nuts, and have hard, inedible seeds.

The slow-growing lychee tree is often less than 10 m (33 ft) tall, but may grow to heights of 15 m (50 ft) or more, and has a broad, round crown that may be as wide as the tree is tall; it is sometimes planted as an ornamental. Its leaves are alternate, pinnately compound, with 4 to 8 smooth, glossy, leathery leaflets; the whole leaf is around 12.5 to 20 cm (5 to 8 in) long. The flowers are tiny, greenish-white to yellow, and grow in large, many-branched terminal clusters up to 75 cm (30 in) long. The fruits, which develop in clusters of up to 30, are oval to round, up to 4 cm (1.5 in) long, and ripen to strawberry or dark. The fruits have a thin, leathery skin when fresh, but when fruits dry out (which happens just a few days after ripening), the skin becomes hard and brittle, with a nut-like firmness. The fruits have a fleshy white to pinkish or grayish aril (pulp) that easily separates from the single, brown, leathery seed within. The trees are often propagated by grafting.

The fruits, which are high in vitamin C, are peeled and eaten fresh, dried for use as a snack, processed into juice, or canned in a sugar syrup. They are used in fruit salads or as a dessert, or are prepared in meat and fish dishes or used as a stuffing in various Chinese and Thai dishes. They are sometimes soaked in alcohol to make a liqueur. Honey is harvested from hives that feed on lychee flowers and is prized for its lychee-like flavor and non-granulating texture.

Lychees have a long tradition of cultivation of local propagation in China, with the development of many prized varieties. Up-to-date statistics on total commercial production are difficult to locate, but the FAO estimated that commercial production of lychee fruits in 1999 was 1.7 million metric tons, harvested from over 635,000 hectares in China, India, Taiwan, Thailand, North Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Australia. There is a limited amount of commercial production in Hawaii, Florida, the West Indies, and Central America.

(Bailey et al. 1976, FAO 2002, Flora of China 2007, Morton 1979, van Wyk 2005.)


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© Jacqueline Courteau

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