Lychee tree: origin, cultivation & care

Frederike
Frederike
Frederike
Frederike

I am a student of agricultural sciences and a real country kid. At home, I love tending my small vegetable garden and spending time out in nature. When not outdoors, I love to write. Beyond gardening and writing, however, I am particularly passionate about wildlife.

Favourite fruit: currants and raspberries
Favourite vegetables: salsify, savoy cabbage and potatoes

Once a rarity, nowadays exotic lychee fruits are widely available in grocery stores and fine food shops. Lychee trees can be a bit challenging to grow and it will put your green fingers to the test but with our tips, your tree will be producing delicious lychees in no time.

halved lychee fruits
Beneath the lychee’s bright red skin is its sweet white flesh [Photo: Thanphitcha Thana/ Shutterstock.com]

With a little know-how, lychee trees can be cultivated in both greenhouses and bright conservatories, where they produce sweet fruits in summer. Not only are lychees delicious, they are also rich in vitamin C and potassium.

Lychee trees: origins, blossom and characteristics

The lychee tree (Litchi chinensis) is the sole member of the genus Litchi in the soapberry family (Sapindaceae). Lychee trees are native to the tropical regions of southern China, where they have been cultivated on the river basins for more than a thousand years. Today, Litchi chinesis are cultivated throughout Southeast Asia, Africa, Israel, Australia and the Southern United States.

In its natural habitat, a lychee tree grows to a height of 10 to 15 meters. Lychee trees produce delicate little yellow flowers on twigs that are about 30 centimetres long in the spring. Each flower cluster can produce anywhere from 2 to 20 lychee fruits, which ripen in 60 to 80 days. Lychee fruits are distinguished by their thick red skin with a rough texture. Despite its appearance, the skin is easily removed. The white gelatinous flesh of the lychee tastes sweet and in the middle is a reddish-brown seed, which earned the lychee its other nickname, the eyeball fruit. In cooler climates, lychee trees have to grow in a climate-controlled greenhouse all year round in order to bear fruit. In the greenhouse, it is critical to plant it freely in the ground; fruiting in a tub is not possible. Because they are evergreen plants, lychee trees retain their green leaves even in the winter.

hanging ripe lychee clusters
Lychee fruits hang from the tree on long vines [Photo: Pierre-Yves Babelon/ Shutterstock.com]

How to plant a lychee tree

If you want to decorate your greenhouse or conservatory with a lychee tree, you can either buy a pre-cultivated tree or grow a lychee tree from a seed.

In our latitudes, the lychee tree can only be grown as a tub plant or in a heated greenhouse. As lychee trees need high humidity and warm temperatures, a greenhouse or conservatory is necessary for lychee plants to survive. Plant lychee trees in a coarse-grained substrate, such as a humus-rich, sandy to loamy potting soil mixed with explained clay. The humus in the soil stores water and nutrients, while the expanded clay creates a loose and airy soil environment that is also water permeable. The substrate should have a pH between 5.5 and 6.5. To create the ideal growing medium for your lychee tree, combine our Plantura Organic All Purpose Compost with some expanded clay.

In summer, the lychee tree can also be placed outdoors in a wind-protected, sunny and warm spot.

Propagating lychees

If you want to propagate your lychee tree, you have several options: You can propagate lychees by seeds and cuttings or try air layering.

How to grow a lychee tree from seed

Lychee seeds do not have to end up as a waste product in the compost, because they are perfectly suited for growing a lychee tree. With the right method, fully ripened lychee seeds have a good chance at germinating successfully. To grow lychee plants from seed, first, carefully remove the flesh and then pickle the clean seed. To pickle lychee seeds, soak them in a 50 °C water bath for 20 minutes. After the seed has been removed, it has only four to five days to germinate, so it is critical to plant it as soon as possible. The ideal growing medium for lychee seeds is less fertilised than regular potting soil. Specialty seedling soils like our Plantura Organic Herb & Seedling Compost promote root growth, resulting in a strong tree.

lychee seedling being watered
Lychees can be grown from seed [Photo: Angurt/ Shutterstock.com]

Place the lychee seed horizontally two to three centimetres deep into the growing medium and press down the soil. Keep the lychee seed in a warm yet semi-shady spot with a temperature of at least 25 °C so that it can germinate properly. The first sprouts appear about two weeks after planting. Once the first four leaves have formed, repot the seedlings into larger containers. Do not remove the seed when repotting, as it provides nutrients to the small shoot.

Tip: To increase the humidity and temperature in the seed pot, plastic film can be stretched over the pot. This acts like a mini greenhouse. However, do not forget to ventilate it from time to time, otherwise, mould can grow.

young lychee plant
Young lychee trees will not flower for many years [Photo: tovmatros1986/ Shutterstock.com]

How to grow lychees from cuttings

Lychee plants can also be propagated from cuttings. To do this, cut off a young shoot from the mother plant with a sharp knife. Make sure that there is a bud on both the upper and lower side of the shoot. Defoliate the shoot, leaving just two leaves at the top. Cut these two leaves in half. In order for the cutting to form roots, place it in a glass of water. Once the roots are large enough, plant the cutting.

How to air layer lychee plants

Air layering is another good propagation technique. To do this, remove a strip of bark about ten centimetres in length from a young lychee branch at the end of April. Pull a bag of wet peat moss over the exposed area and secure it with adhesive tape. After six to eight weeks, new roots will form from the exposed area on the branch and spread out in the moss. At this point, remove the branch from the mother plant and plant the newly formed young plant.

air layering a lychee plant
Air layering is the process of attaching moist peat moss to a young branch that has had a strip of bark removed [Photo: khak/ Shutterstock.com]

The most important tips for lychee plant care

Lychee trees require some attention to ensure healthy plant growth. Here is everything you need to know about caring for the difficult lychee plant.

Watering lychee trees

In spring, water sparingly and infrequently, as dryness promotes flower formation. However, after flowering, lychee trees need a lot of watering, or the fruit will fall off prematurely. To ensure even soil moisture, flood the root ball with water once and then let it dry out a little. After that, keep the root ball constantly moist, but avoid waterlogging. The lychee tree’s soft foliage and small pinnate leaves require a humidity level of at least 70%. In the summer, set up bowls of water or spray the plants with water to increase the humidity. During winter, as the plant’s energy needs decrease, stop watering heavily.

Fertilising lychee trees

Lychee trees do not need much fertiliser. However, you should not completely neglect fertilisation. From April to September, apply a liquid fertiliser every 10 to 14 days. This supports the tree during its growth period as well as in the formation of the sweet fruits. Our Plantura Liquid Citrus Food is ideal, as it contains iron chelates that prevent iron deficiency and leaf chlorosis.

Plantura Liquid Citrus Food
Plantura Liquid Citrus Food

Liquid fertiliser with an NK ratio of 4-5, for all citrus & Mediterranean plants, promotes healthy plant growth, child & pet friendly

Tip: Keep to the specified fertilisation times because the lychee tree is sensitive to salt. Overfertilisation leads to soil salinisation and root damage, resulting in brown leaf edges.

Pruning lychee trees

Lychee trees do not need to be pruned. However, if any branches become too long, they can be trimmed back in March or April.

pruned lychee trees
In the regions where they are grown, lychee trees are sometimes cut back radically and sprout again [Photo: taewafeel/ Shutterstock.com]

Repotting lychee plants

Every two to three years the lychee tree needs to be repotted into a larger pot.

Tip: Lychee trees grow very slowly. Refrain from planting the lychee tree in a large pot from the beginning as then it is easier to repot it.

Are lychees hardy?

No, lychee trees are not hardy in our latitudes. The tropical tree must be overwintered at temperatures of 5 to 15 °C. However, in order for the tree to produce flowers, the lychee tree must be exposed to temperatures of 0 to 12 °C for about ten days. You can then return it to its warmer location. For overwintering, choose a frost-free, bright location with high humidity. It is also possible to overwinter the plant in a bright living room, but this is less advantageous for the plant’s health.

flowering lychee tree
The lychee tree needs a certain amount of cold exposure to flower [Photo: santanu maity/ Shutterstock.com]

Lychee harvest and uses

Lychees do not ripen after harvesting. This means that the harvest must be planned precisely. When the lychee fruits swell and the texture of their skin flattens, it is time to harvest them. In order to find the optimal time of ripeness, carry out taste tests regularly. Lychees ripen at different rates, which is why you should harvest every three to four days. To harvest, cut the entire cluster of lychees with secateurs from the tree; simply pick individual lychees for tasting. Once the lychees have been harvested, they can be eaten fresh, stored or processed. The fruits can be kept for three to five days at room temperature and three months in the refrigerator.

lychee garnish
Lychees make for a delectable garnish [Photo: New Africa/ Shutterstock.com]

You can preserve lychees in sugar or dry them. In Asia, dried lychees are often served with tea. Freshly squeezed lychee juice makes a refreshing drink and can also be turned into liqueur and wine.

If you are looking for local exotics, we would love to introduce you to the loganberry, which, unlike tropical fruits, does not require a greenhouse for cultivation.

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