Vegetation Profile: Lychee

The Lychee (Litchi chinensis), also spelled Litchi or Laichi and Lichu, Chinese: 荔枝, Hanyu Pinyin: Lìzhī, is the sole member of the genus Litchi in the soapberry family Sapindaceae. It is a tropical fruit tree native to southern China. It is also commonly found in India (Muzaffarpur), Bangladesh, southern Taiwan, northern Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The fruit is a drupe, 3–4 cm long and 3 cm in diameter. The outside is covered by a pink-red, roughly-textured rind that is inedible but easily removed. The inside consists of a layer of sweet, translucent white flesh, rich in vitamin C, with a texture somewhat similar to that of a grape. The edible flesh consists of a highly developed aril enveloping the seed. The center contains a single glossy brown nut-like seed, 2 cm long and 1–1.5 cm in diameter. The seed, similar to a buckeye seed, is not poisonous but should not be eaten. The fruit matures from July to October, about 100 days after flowering.

Lychees are extensively grown in the native region of China, and also elsewhere in South-East Asia, especially in north of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, southern Japan, Taiwan, and more recently in California, Hawaii, and Florida[1] in the United States, the wetter areas of eastern Australia and sub-tropical regions of South Africa, also in the state of Sinaloa in Mexico. They require a warm subtropical to tropical climate that is cool but also frost-free or with only very slight winter frosts not below -4°C, and with high summer heat, rainfall, and humidity. Growth is best on well-drained, slightly acidic soils rich in organic matter. A wide range of cultivars is available, with early and late maturing forms suited to warmer and cooler climates respectively. They are also grown as an ornamental tree as well as for their fruit.

Lychees are commonly sold fresh in Vietnamese, Chinese and Asian markets, and in recent years, also widely in supermarkets worldwide. The red rind turns dark brown when the fruit is refrigerated, but the taste is not affected. It is also sold canned year-round. The fruit can be dried with the rind intact, at which point the flesh shrinks and darkens.

Vải thiều is a well-known cultivar in Vietnam. It roots in Thanh Ha district, Hai Duong province and recently exists in Luc Ngan district, Bac Giang province. The fruit is notable for its small globe, red shell, tiny or no seed, very sweet taste and special flavor.

It’s lychee season in Saigon and timing couldn’t be any more perfect because I was just getting tired of eating rambutans! Fruits in Vietnam arrive in waves with distinct varieties available during the rainy and dry seasons. One day, there were no lychees in sight and the next, BA-BOW, lychees everywhere! With so many vendors selling the same fruits, the consumer really benefits from the competitive pricing.

Lychees are wonderful for a number of reasons—they’re juicy, easy to peel, have a lovely sweet/tart taste and their peels don’t attract ants like rambutans do. Although it’s quite nice eating fresh tropical fruit, sometimes when I’m feeling particularly lazy I yearn for the peeled and de-seeded stuff sold in cans. I know I’ll regret making such an absurd statement when I return to the States.

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