Lychee is a small fruit with a hard and rough peel, pink or red, protecting a white and fragrant flesh with delicate floral flavor. Also called “cherries of China”, in reference to their origin, the lychees present on market stalls come from the Indian Subcontinent during winter and from Thailand or China during summer.
The lychee (Lychee sinensis) is a fruit tree of the Sapindaceae family. Originally from southern China, its name comes from the Chinese, which can be phonetically noted as “Li-Tchi”. People commonly call it lychee or lychee from China. By deformation, it is sometimes called lychee chinensis (but there it has no longer its real Latin name, sinensis coming from the Latin Sina “China” as in sinology, the study of China).
The lychee is now cultivated in several countries, in tha northern and southern hemispheres, in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. China and India are the largest producers and provide 80% of world production, which amounts to 2.5 million tonnes annually.
The lychees which are consumed in many countries are often from the southern hemisphere, and mainly from Madagascar, which provides about 100 000 tonnes of lychees each year for the European market. This is why people consume lychees in the winter as they mature between mid-November and mid-January in the southern hemisphere.
History of lychee
The lychee has been cultivated for millenniums in China. This common fruit is very appreciated by all,even by emperors. The first historical reference to the culture of lychees dates back to the reign of Han Wudi, the seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty, who ordered in 111 B.C. the planting of lychees in the palace. This one failed, the palace being located in the north of China in a climate not conducive to the good development of the tree.
Many centuries later, in 1764, the lychee was introduced to the island of Réunion. So it arrived shortly thereafter in Madagascar, now the main supplier of lychees for Europe.
Rich in vitamin C and water, sweet and flavored with a rose taste, the lychee is a very popular edible fruit for the Chinese and the rest of the world. The fresh lychee is delicious to eat raw, alone or in fruit salad, with other exotic and sweet fruits (be careful, do not eat the seed that is toxic). It brings a delicate note, as well as juice. If you like sweet-salted taste, you can cook it with chicken or pork. Ice cream lovers can also make delicious sorbets.
The lychee is a tropical tree, a little rustic and fragile. It prefers to be in the sun and the warm. It supports short freeze but in temperate regions you will not be able to grow the lychee outdoors because it fears too much the freezing and prolonged winter’s cold, tolerating barely temperatures below 8 °C. On the other hand, it makes a nice indoor plant, potted, installed under greenhouse, in veranda or near a bright window.
Nutrition: lychees, excellent for health, possess astringent properties, analgesics, stomachic and tonics.
The health effects of the lychee
The lychee is a good source of vitamin C. Daily needs for an adult vary between 75 and 90 mg per day. The consumption of 100 g of lychee makes it possible to reach between 80 to 95% of its needs. In addition to its role of antioxidant and reduction of oxidative stress, vitamin C helps to maintain the integrity of the skin, helps to heal wounds, protects the cells from premature ageing caused by free radicals and facilitates the immune functions. In addition, it facilitates the absorption of non-hemed iron of plant origin.
The lychee is also a source of potassium. Like sodium, potassium is an essential mineral that performs several necessary functions in the human body. With the help of sodium, it helps to maintain the acid-base balance of the body and it controls the ph inside the cells. It is also essential to the transmission of nerve impulses, to muscular contraction. It also contributes to the proper functioning of the kidneys and adrenal glands, as well as to the synthesis of proteins and to the metabolism of carbohydrates. In addition, sufficient potassium inputs would be associated with the decrease in the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
The use of the lychee
Lychees are sold fresh or canned. You can also find them dried or candied. Instead, fresh lychees will be chosen with a colorful, non-wrinkled skin. They keep in the refrigerator in a plastic bag perforated for a few weeks, or in the freezer in their hull. If they are kept at room temperature, they must be consumed within 48 hours or they tend to ferment and become acidic.
To consume it, you remove the shell with your fingers or a knife, taking good care not to cut the flesh.
To save water and to assure your lychee enjoys a good degree of humidity, install alongside other tropical plants that also have high water needs (second lychee, banana, dieffenbachia). They will create a humid microclimate, taking advantage of each other’s water evaporation.
How to choose and keep it?
The lychee season is between the months of November and January (it is mainly cultivated in the southern hemisphere), although it is also possible to find it in summer, imported from Thailand and Israel. The lychee is always picked at maturity: so it is important to choose well, to enjoy all the flavor of the fruit. The lychees will be preferred to the intact, hard, uncracked hull of a nice pink to red gradient. They can be stored for a week to fifteen days in the refrigerator or frozen once their bark and kernel are removed. Attention, if you keep them at room temperature, the skin of the lychees becomes brown.
How to consume it?
The fresh lychee is consumed, after removing the peel and the central core. It is also delicious in fruit salad or compote, syrup, smoothie, cocktail, granite … It accompanies fish and seafood very well, but we can also taste the lychee with slices of duck breast, to play on the sweet-salted rings. In Polynesia, the lychee is mixed with meat stuffing.
The lychee grows under tropical and subtropical climates. In the southern hemisphere, it comes to maturity between mid-november and mid-January. In the Northern hemisphere, it is harvested from June to August. In Europe, it is mainly marketed during the winter period, as it is mostly from Madagascar. At that time it can also be imported from the island of Réunion, from Australia, Brazil, South Africa … The rarer lychees that people buy in the summer often come from Thailand or Israel.
Lychee sinensis is a tree that measures between 10 and 15 m in its natural environment. Its branches are rather supple and thin, its foliage is dense and persistent. When the many fruits grouped in clusters make their weight and bend the foliage, it strengthens its round habit and accentuates its falling appearance. Its leaves are so-called compound leaves. Therefore they show a number of leaflets with a lanceolate form of a slightly shiny green and quite dark.
During flowering, the lychee shows many small honey flowers of white-pink color, grouped in panicles (clusters of flower and will later give a fruit). The bloom is beautiful and results in the production of small red fruits with a thick and rough envelope: lychees.
From a spherical shape, rounded, to a shape of a heart, the lychee is a small fruit that measures 3-4 cm in diameter. It is also called China Plum or Chinese cherry. Its envelope, reddish-orange, or even red-pink at maturity, is hard and resistant while inside, the flesh of the lychee is pulpy, juicy, shiny and slightly translucent in white color. In the middle there is a single, elongated, brown and shiny seed.
Species and varieties of lychees
There are no “plant varieties” (natural) of lychee sinensis but there are many cultivars created by humans. The latter are varieties selected and multiplied by layering or grafting that do not reproduce their distinct characteristics naturally. There are several dozen cultivars today especially Chinese, which produce different lychees such as round lychees, the lychees with the dark leaves, the lychees swayed by the wind or the lychees in the scent of Xin Xing. It is difficult to find the latter cultivars because some confusion reigns in the names of the varieties.
Hairy lychees: if you cross lychees with “hairs”, they are in fact rambutan, exotic fruits of the same family as the lychee but of another kind. In Asia they are also called “Hairy lychees”.