Chinese Cultural Importance
The red, heart-shaped fruit of Litchi chinensis has enjoyed a revered place in Chinese folklore, history, medicine and commerce since the first century CE (Common Era). The Lychee is associated with romance and boasts aphrodisiac powers. It has been eulogised by Chinese poets. No fewer than 9 treatises have been written on it, from Ts’ai Hsiang in AD1059 to W Ying K’uei in 1826. It is even claimed that the fruit played a role in the downfall of the Emperor Tang Xuanzong (685-762). His favourite concubine was enormously fond of the fruit that spoiled quickly. The Emperor had relays of couriers bring it to the Imperial court on fast horses from Southern China.
Litchi chinensis is the sole member of the Litchi genus in the Sapindaceae, known as the Soapberry or Maple family, in the Sapindales order. The Sapindaceae contain around 140 genera and around 1,860 species in four subfamilies. The family includes important economic and fruit crops.
The edible part of the fruit is the white, fleshy aril. An aril is a special outgrowth from a seed. It encloses a large, shiny, inedible seed. The photo above shows where the aril was attached to the seed. The outer casing is reddish in colour with a warty, scaly appearance and leathery feel. The surface is also described as muricate (rough with numerous short points) or verrucose (studded with wartlike protruberances or elevations).
Michel Boym described in 1656 how the Chinese cultivated and dried the fruit in large quantities. (via Groff 1921). He wrote of a pine-like appearance, texture like a grape and aroma of a rose. According to the Chinese, the wild fruit had a large seed, scanty flesh and sub-acid taste. The seeds of cultivated Lychees soon decreased in size and the fleshy fruit became sweet and abundant. The Chinese also sometimes preserved the fruit in salt water to maintain its freshness. There are early warnings that the Lychee can be dangerous to human health if eaten in excess.
Ideally, the fruit is best eaten fresh from the tree. Today, Lychees are also preserved in sugared syrup in tins. Unlike many fruits, they tolerate this method well. They are used in many fancy dishes and added to cocktails.
Wu Ying K’uei explains at fascinating length how the Lychee got its name. The two Chinese characters mean to separate/leave and branch respectively. The name describes the way the fruit clings tenaciously to its twigs, so that it can only be separated from its branches with knives. The Chinese ideogram evolved to show 3 and later 2 knives representing the need to cut. The Lychee is indehiscent. It is harvested by being cut from the hard tree branches with its twigs still attached. The name originates from Cantonese rather than Mandarin as the fruit is indigenous to South China.
The tree’s flowers are small and numerous. They are greenish white or yellowish. Reports state that they quickly turn brown and their smell is best avoided.
Seeds and Air Layering
Lychee trees are rarely grown from seed. The seeds do not remain viable for more than 4-5 days, except in very wet/humid conditions. Instead the trees are propagated using the Chinese system of air layering (see web link below for further information). New trees will bear fruit in a few years. They are in their prime from 20-40 years old and if well-tended can bear tasty fruit for over 100 years.
The tree is evergreen and has ornamental appeal. The deep green foliage is somewhat laurel-like in appearance. New growth in the winter or spring flushes the tree with a beautiful orange hue. It stands in sharp contrast to the older green leaves. (Kew’s Herbarium sample is available on line via the web link below).
Observations about the tree’s roots via Groff are fascinating. The roots are described as fibrous and extending in all directions. They extend below ground in a thick network, to roughly the same width as the tree. A note at the end of the book draws on recent (for 1921) scientific research. It states that the tree does not thrive unless it is grown in acid soil. The roots are described as covered with tubercles and gorged with mycorrhizal fungi.
It is apparent that taking the Lychee out of its native conditions does not work well. Mountainous varieties exist, but are considered sour to the taste. The Lychee has only extended its native range today to areas that can replicate its native conditions. It fares best at low altitudes, on the foothills or on the banks of streams, close to rivers or near the coast in sub-tropical regions. It does not fare well in areas with heavy frosts or strong northerly winds.
Groff’s admiration for Chinese expertise in cultivating the Lychee shines out from his book. His words and pictures show how the trees are often planted in banked fields. The Chinese are diligent in protecting their crop from winds, bats and plagues of insects.
Economic Impact of Climate Change?
The Southern China regions seem highly dependent economically on their Lychee crop. The Lychee has been shown to be intolerant of climate fluctuations. This should ring alarm bells under climate emergency conditions. On the other hand, pictures show that the trees can withstand periodic submerging from rivers in flood. They also require a cool dry, rest period in the year without frost and extreme winds to thrive.
© Karen Netto (Andrews)
American Camellia Society (2019): Air Layering. Last accessed online 3 December 2019.
Case, Frances (ed.) (2008): 1001 Foods you must try before you die. A Global Guide to the Best Ingredients. Cassell Illustrated. Quintessence Publishing, London.
Christenhusz, Maarten J. M., Fay, Michael F. & Chase, Mark W. (2012): Plants of the World. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Vascular Plants. Kew. Chicago.
Groff, George Weidman (1921): The Lychee and Lungan. Canton Christian College. New York. Forgotten Books (copyright 2016). Last Accessed online 3 December 2019
Jirong, Dong (Chinaculture.org) (2008): Delivering the fruit of romance. China Daily. Last accessed online: 4 December 2019
Kew Science (2017): Litchi chinensis Sonn. Plants of the World Online. Last accessed online 3 December 2019
Simpson, Michael G. (2010): Plant Systematics. Elsevier. Academic Press. Burlington, MA, USA.
Utteridge, Timothy & Bramley, Gemma (ed.) (2015): The Kew Tropical Plant Families Identification Handbook. Second Edition. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Van Wyk, Ben-Erik (2005): Food Plants of the World. An Illustrated Guide. Timber Press. Portland, Oregon, USA.