Litchi chinensis (Sapindaceae)
Lychee (Soapberry Family)
There are so many advantages to living in Florida, one of them is fresh tropical fruit. Just as many northerners have a summer tomato garden in the backyard, many people wouldn’t consider their home Floridian without their dooryard citrus or mango tree. For people who want an exotic tropical fruit that is easy to eat but don’t have a ton of room for a large tree, lychees may be the answer. One of the most delicious tropical fruits, lychee trees can be kept quite small (although they will get huge if allowed to grow unchecked) and can tolerate a light frost once mature. They are a bit more cold tolerant than a mango, but still cannot stand a hard freeze. Even if you can’t grow your own lychees at home, early summer is usually a great time to scour the local farmer’s markets for fruits, or your own neighborhood from trees laden with fruits. (Be sure to knock on the door and ask before taking anyone’s fruit. In old England, this crime was known as “scrumping,” and no one likes a scrumper. Especially not tropical fruit nuts.)
Lychees were one of the first fruits to start the tropical fruit craze in Florida in the forties. Nowadays, every major community in the central and southern portions of the state has a tropical fruit society of some kind, back then it was more of a magazine-driven industry. Lychees were easy to spread and grow because unlike many fruits, which require a living cultivar (clone) of a proven tree in order to produce satisfactory fruit, lychees can be grown from seed with good results. So although cultivars exist (most of them produce “chicken tongue” seeds, small, half-aborted seeds which leave more room for the delicious pulp), many older lychee trees, even production trees, were grown from seed. They are all delicious.
There are some huge lychee trees around Sarasota, many planted from seed back in the forties and fifties, some taking up whole lots. They produce heavily every two years, with a light year in between. Last year was not a great year for lychees, but this year is looking up, up, up. We have a small lychee tree, covered in flowers and baby fruits, in our Tropical Fruit Garden. Come check it out, and keep an eye out around town for the beautiful-formed, deep green trees full of delicious red fruits.
Text by David Troxell