From the Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits
by Wilson Popenoe

The Litchi and its Relatives
Lichi chinensis, Sonn.

Litchi Cultivation
Litchi Propagation
Litchi Yield And Season
Litchi Pests And Diseases
Litchi Varieties

While living in exile at Canton, the poet Su Tung-po declared that litchis would reconcile one to eternal banishment. Yet he did not allow his enthusiasm to draw him into gastronomic indiscretions, for he limited himself to a modest three hundred a day, while other men (so he says) did not stop short of a thousand.

Chang Chow-ling, an illustrious statesman of the eighth century of our era, composed a poem on the litchi in which he praised it as the most luscious of all fruits. Modern Chinese critics fully concur in this opinion. Neither the orange nor the peach, two of the finest fruits of southern China, is held to equal it in quality.

Nor is the litchi one of those rare and delicate fruits known only to the favored few. In southern Asia, where its cultivation dates back at least two thousand years, it is grown extensively and millions are familiar with it. That it should still be unknown in most parts of the western tropics is probably due to the perishable nature of the seeds. Before the days of steam navigation, it was difficult to transport them successfully from one continent to another.

"An orchard of litchis," wrote the eminent E. Bonavia of India, "say of a few hundred trees, and with ordinary care, would give a handsome and almost certain annual return for not improbably a hundred years." While it has been considered that the litchi is somewhat exacting in its cultural requirements, it can be grown successfully in many parts of the tropics and subtropics. Now that it has been established in tropical America, there is no reason why it should not there become one of the common fruits, nor why fresh litchis should not be found on fruit-stands of northern cities at least as abundantly as are the dried ones at present.

It is in the form of dried litchis, "litchi nuts," that North Americans are usually acquainted with this fruit. The Chinese who live in the United States import them in large quantities, and are particularly prone to indulging in them at the time of their New Year celebrations. But the dried litchi resembles the fresh one even less than the dried apple of the grocery store resembles a Gravenstein just picked from the tree. To appreciate its excellence, one must taste the fresh litchi; although a fairly true estimate of it may be acquired from the canned or preserved product, which much resembles preserved Muscat grapes in flavor.

Fruits of a good variety of the litchi
Fig. 42.
Fruits of a good variety of the litchi. Kinds which are altogether seedless have been reported, but in the best-known sorts the seed is about the size of the one here shown. (X J)

Judging by the experience of the past few years, it should be possible to produce litchis commercially in southwestern Florida (the Fort Myers region), where there is relative freedom from frost and where the soils are deep and moist. It is doubtful whether there are any localities in southern California adapted to commercial litchi culture, but trees have been grown at Santa Barbara and in the foothill region near Los Angeles (Monrovia, Glendora). While the dry climate and cool winter weather of California are unfavorable, it seems probable that litchis may be grown on a small scale in this state, if planted in sheltered situations and given protection from frost for the first few years.

Because of its value as an ornamental tree, the litchi is recommended for planting in parks and gardens. It grows to an ultimate height of 35 or 40 feet (less in some regions), and forms a broad round-topped crown well supplied with glossy light green foliage. The leaves are compound, with two to four pairs of elliptic-oblong to lanceolate, sharply acute, glabrous leaflets 2 to 3 inches long. The flowers, which are small and unattractive, are borne in terminal panicles sometimes a foot in length. They are said to appear in northern India in February and in China during April. The fruits, which are produced in loose clusters of two or three to twenty or even more, have been likened to strawberries in appearance. In shape they are oval to ovate, in diameter 1 1/2 inches in the better varieties, and in color deep rose when fully ripe, changing to dull brown as the fruit dries. The outer covering is hard and brittle, rough on the surface and divided into small scale-like areas. The seed is small, shriveled, and ot viable in some of the grafted varieties; in seedlings it is as large as a good-sized castor-bean, and glossy dark brown in color. Surrounding it and separating from it readily is the flesh (technically aril), which is white, translucent, firm, and juicy. The flavor is subacid, suggestive of the Bigar-reau cherry or (according to some) the Muscat grape.


Regarding the origin and early history of the fruit Alphonse DeCandolle says: "Chinese authors living at Pekin only knew the litchi late in the third century of our era. Its introduction into Bengal took place at the end of the eighteenth century. Every one admits that the species is a native of the south of China, and, Blume adds, of Cochin-China and the Philippine Islands, but it does not seem that any botanist has found it in a truly wild state. This is probably because the southern part of China towards Siam has been little visited. In Cochin-China and in Burma and at Chittagong the litchi is only cultivated."

Macgowan 1 recounts that litchis were first sent as tribute to the emperor Kao Tsu about 200 B.C. These were dried fruits, however; later fresh ones were forwarded by relays of men, and one is happy to learn that though the cost in human life was frightful they reached the emperor in good condition. The Emperor Wu Ti (140-87 B.C.) made several attempts to bring trees from Annam and plant them in his garden at Chang-an, but he was not successful in raising them.

According to Walter T. Swingle, the first published work devoted exclusively to fruit-culture was written by a Chinese scholar in 1056 a.d. on the varieties of the litchi.

The principal provinces of China in which litchis are grown are Fukien, Kwantung, and Szechwan. In Kwangtung Province alone the annual crop is said to be twenty million to thirty million pounds, worth $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. The region around Canton is considered the most favorable part of China for litchi culture. North of Foochow the tree is not successful.
While litchis are by no means so extensively grown in India as they are in southern China, there are several districts in which they are produced commercially. The most important are said to be in Bengal; about Muzaffarpur (in Bihar); and at Saharanpur (United Provinces of Agra and Oudh). E.
1 Journal of the Agri-Horticultural Society of India, 1884, p. 195.

Bonavia says: "The tree does admirably in Lucknow, and should do as well all over the northwestern provinces, but it flourishes best, I believe, in Bengal. Who knows what untold litchi wealth there may be in the fine black soil of the central provinces, so centrally situated for fruit trade?"

In Cochin-China, in Madagascar, and in a few other countries of the East, the tree is cultivated on a limited scale. In Hawaii, where it is believed to have been introduced about 1873, it has succeeded remarkably well, and much attention has lately been given to its commercial cultivation, without, however, any large orchards having been established as yet.

According to William Harris, it was introduced into Jamaica in 1775, but it is still rare in that island. A tree at Santa Barbara, California, which produced a few fruits in 1914, was the first to come into bearing in the United States. While the litchi is believed to have been planted in Florida as early as 1886, it was not until 1916 that the first fruits were produced in that state. These were from plants introduced from China in 1906. A few trees have borne in Cuba, Brazil, and other parts of tropical America.

The common name of this fruit is variously spelled, - litchi, lichee, lychee, leechee, lichi, laichi, and so on. Yule and Burnell state that the pronunciation in northern China is lee-chee, while in the southern part of the country it is ly-chee. Since the form litchi has been fixed as a part of the botanical name of the species, and since it is employed extensively as the common name, it may be well to retain it in preference to others. The pronunciation ly-chee, which is used in the region where the fruit is grown, is generally preferred to leechee. Botanically the plant is Litchi chinensis, Sonn. Nephelium Litchi, Cambess., is a synonym.

While the litchi is probably best as a fresh fruit, Frank N. Meyer says that it is considered by some to be more delicious when preserved (canned) than when fresh; and he adds: "No good dinner, even in northern China (where the litchi is not grown) is really complete without some of these delicious little fruits." The dried litchi tastes something like the raisin. Consul P. R. Josselyn of Canton writes: "There are two ways of drying litchis, - by sun and by fire. The sun dried litchi has a finer flavor and commands a better price than the fire dried fruit." Only two or three varieties are considered suitable for drying.

Regarding the preserving industry, Josselyn remarks: "It is estimated by dealers that the annual export of tinned litchis from Canton is about 3000 boxes, or 192,000 pounds. Each box of preserved litchis contains 48 tins, weighing 1 catty each. Each tin contains about 28 litchis. There are five large dealers in Canton who make a business of preserving these litchis. In addition to the preserved litchis exported from Canton large quantities of the fresh fruit are shipped from the producing districts surrounding Canton to Hongkong and are there preserved in tin."

An analysis of the fresh fruit, made in Hawaii by Alice R. Thompson, shows it to contain : Total solids 20.92 percent, ash 0.54, acids 1.16, protein 1.15, and total sugars 15.3.


Litchi Cultivation

In general it must be considered that the litchi is tropical in its requirements. It likes a moist atmosphere, abundant rainfall, and freedom from frosts. It can be grown in subtropical regions, however, where the climate is moist or if abundant water is supplied, and where severe frosts are not commonly experienced.

Young plants will not withstand temperatures below the freezing point. In regions subject to frost they should, therefore, be given careful protection during the winter. The mature tree is not seriously injured by several degrees of frost, but at Miami, Florida, plants six feet high were killed by a temperature of 26° above zero.

Rev. William N. Brewster of Hinghua, Fukien, China, describing the conditions under which the trees are cultivated in that country, says: "They will not flourish north of the frost line. They are particularly sensitive to cold when young. It is the custom here to wrap the trees with straw to protect them from the cold. After the trees are five or six years old they are less sensitive, and it takes quite a heavy frost to injure them."

Regarding soil, G. W. Groff of the Canton Christian College writes : "The litchi seems to do best on dykes of low land where its roots can always secure all the water needed, and where they are even subjected to periods of immersion. In some places they grow on high land but not nearly so successfully." The Rev. Mr. Brewster says on this subject: "The trees flourish in a soft, moist black soil; alluvium seems best. Near by or on the bank of a stream or irrigation canal is best, though this is not essential. Where there is no stream the trees should be watered so frequently that the ground below the surface is always moist; about twice a week when rain is not abundant should be enough. After the young trees are well started, about two or three years old, the irrigations may be less fre-quent."

These authorities are quoted to show the conditions under which the litchi is grown in China. Experience in other countries has shown the tree to be reasonably adaptable in regard to both climate and soil. While it prefers a humid atmosphere, it has succeeded in the relatively dry climate of Santa Barbara, California, without more frequent irrigation than other fruit-trees. On the plains of northern India, where the atmosphere is comparatively dry and the annual rainfall about 40 inches, it is cultivated on a commercial scale. Although the best soil may be a rich alluvial loam, it has done well in Florida on light sandy loam. It has not been successful, however, on the rocky lands of southeastern Florida. Whether these lands are too dry, or whether the litchi dislikes the large amounts of lime which they contain, cannot be stated definitely. In undertaking to grow this tree, four desiderata should be kept in mind : first, freedom from injurious frosts; second, a humid atmosphere ; third, a deep loamy soil; and fourth, an abundance of soil-moisture. When one or more of these is naturally lacking, efforts must be made to correct the deficiency in so far as possible. Frost-injury can be lessened by protecting the trees; low atmospheric humidity is not badly prejudicial if the soil is abundantly moist; sandy soils may be made more suitable by adding humus-forming material; and a soil naturally dry may be irrigated regularly and frequently.

In regions where the litchi tree grows to large size, it is not advisable to space the plants closer than 30 feet apart, and 40 feet is considered better. In Florida they can be set more closely without harm; 25 feet will probably be a suitable distance. In localities where frost protection must be given, it may be desirable to plant the trees under sheds, and in this case economy will demand that they be crowded as much as possible. At Oneco, near Bradentown, Florida, E. N. Reasoner has fruited the litchi very successfully in a region usually considered too cold for it, by growing it in a shed covered during the winter with thin muslin to keep off frost, and opened in the summer. If it is commercially profitable to erect sheds over pineapple-fields, - and it has proved so in certain parts of Florida, -there seems to be no reason why it should not be much more profitable to grow the litchi in this way, in regions where protection from frost is necessary.
The trees should be planted in holes previously prepared by excavating to a depth of several feet, and incorporating with the soil a liberal amount of leaf-mold, well-rotted manure, rich loam, or other material which will increase the amount of humus. This is, of course, more important where the soil is light and sandy, as it is in many parts of Florida, than where the humuscontent is high. Basins may be formed around the trees to hold water.

Bonavia writes: "As the trees grow, their thalas or water-saucers should be enlarged and on no account should the fallen leaves be removed from them, but allowed to decay there and form a surface layer of leaf-mold. . . . Every hot weather thin layers of about two or three inches of any other dried leaves should be spread over the thalas, and allowed to decay there, to be renewed when they crumple up and decay." This corresponds to the mulching generally practiced in western countries. It has been remarked by several writers that the litchi is a shallow-rooted tree, with most of its feeding roots close to the surface. If this really is the case, mulching will probably be an essential practice, and deep tilling of the soil will have to be avoided.

Rev. Mr. Brewster says: "Fertilization is important. Guano is probably as good as anything. The Chinese use night soil. They dig a shallow trench around the tree at the end of the roots and fill it with liquid manure of some sort. This is done about once in three months." J.E. Higgins, 1 in his bulletin "The Litchi in Hawaii," notes that "Some growers prefer to put the manure on as a top dressing and cover it with a heavy mulch because of the tendency of the litchi to form surface roots."

The tree requires little pruning. Higgins says : "The customary manner of gathering the fruit, by breaking with it branches 10 to 12 inches long, provides in itself a form of pruning which some growers insist is necessary for the continued productivity of the tree." But a thorough study has yet to be made of this subject in the Occident.

Hand-in-hand with the development of litchi-growing in the American tropics and subtropics will come the development of new cultural methods. The information at present available is meager, and too apt to be characterized by the generalities of the Hindu horticulturist: "Too much manure should not be applied to newly planted or small trees. As the tree flourishes, more and more manure should be applied," writes one of them, in a treatise on litchi-culture. The literature of tropical pomology is burdened with information of this nature, and the need is for more specific data based on experience.
1Bull 44, Hawaii Agri. Exp. Sta., 1917.


Litchi Propagation

Propagation of the litchi is commonly effected by two means : seed, and air-layering (known in India as guti). Higgins writes on this subject:
"As seeds do not reproduce the variety from which they have been taken, and as the seedlings are of rather slow growth and require many years to come into bearing, it has for many years been the custom in China, the land of the litchi, to propagate the best varieties by layering or by air-layering, a process which has come to be known as 'Chinese layering' and is applied to many kinds of plants. In air-layering, a branch is surrounded with soil until roots have formed, after which it is removed, and established as a new tree. In applying the method to the litchi, a branch from 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter is wounded by the complete removal of a ring of bark just below a bud, where it is desired to have the roots start. The cut is usually surrounded by soil held in place by a heavy wrapping of burlap or similar material, although sometimes a box is elevated into the tree for this purpose. Several ingenious devices have been made to supply the soil with constant moisture. Sometimes a can with a very small opening in the bottom is suspended above the soil and filled with water which passes out drop by drop into the soil. Again, sometimes the water is conducted, from a can or other vessel placed above the soil, by means of a loosely woven rope, one end of which is placed in the water, the other on the soil, the water passing over by capillarity.

"Air-layering is commenced at about the beginning of the season of most active growth, and several months are required for the establishment of a root system sufficient to support an independent tree. When a good ball of roots has formed, the branch is cut off below the soil, or the box, after which it is generally placed in a larger box or tub to become more firmly established before being set out permanently. At first it is well to provide some shade and protection from the wind, and it is often necessary to cut back the top of the branch severely, so as to secure a proper proportion of stem to root."
Regarding methods of propagation employed in China, Groff says: "I have never seen a budded or grafted litchi tree, and I understand it is never done. Litchi trees are either inarched or layered, the latter being the most common and most successful. If inarched it is on litchi stock. The common practice in inarching is to use the Loh Mai Chi variety for cion and the San Chi for stock."The method of layering mentioned by Groff is that described above. Inarching is treated in this volume in connection with the propagation of the mango. It is a tedious process of grafting little used in America, but more certain than budding and other methods.

Litchi seeds are short-lived. If removed from the fruit and dried, they retain their viability not more than four or five days. If they remain in the fruit, however, and the latter is not allowed to dry, they can be kept for three or four weeks. In this way they can be shipped to great distances, or they may be removed from the fruit, packed in moist sphagnum moss, and allowed to germinate en route. Some of the choice grafted varieties, such as the Bedana of India, do not produce viable seeds.

Higgins recommends that the seeds be sown in pots sunk in well-drained soil. They should be placed hortizontally about 1/2 inch below the surface of the soil, and after they have germinated the seedlings should be kept in half-shade.
Attention has recently been given to the possibility of grafting or budding the litchi on the longan (Euphoria Longana) and other relatives (see below). Higgins has successfully crown-grafted the litchi on large longan stocks. He says, "Repeated experiments with this method have shown that there is no great difficulty in securing a union of the litchi with the longan. A noteworthy influence of the stock on the cion should be mentioned here. The growth produced is very much more rapid than that of the litchi on its own roots, and in some cases the character of the foliage seems to undergo a change." Additional experience is required, however, to show the practical value of the longan and other stocks. The field is an interesting one, and important results are likely to be secured.


Litchi Yield And Season

Seedling litchis have been known to bear fruit at five years of age. It is commonly held that they should bear when seven to nine years old. In some instances, however, trees twenty years old have failed to produce fruit. Higgins remarks, "Wide variability in the age of coming into bearing has been noted with seedlings of other tropical fruits, especially the avocado, but the litchi appears most extreme in this respect."

Layered plants tend to bear when very young. Sometimes they will flower a year after planting, and mature a few fruits when two years old, but three to five years is the age at which they normally come into bearing.

The litchi is famed as a long-lived tree. An early Chinese account (not necessarily to be credited) mentions one which was cut down when it was 800 years old. Bonavia considered that litchis should remain in profitable bearing for a century at least.

Mature trees have been found in Hawaii to yield 200 to 300 pounds of fruit yearly, and crops of 1000 pounds have been reported. Under good cultural conditions, the tree can be expected to produce a crop every year. Again quoting Bonavia, it may be said that the tree "bears annually an abundant crop of fine, well-flavored and aromatic fruits, which can readily be sent to distant markets. Instead of being planted by ones or twos, it should be planted by the thousand."

In picking the fruit, entire clusters are usually broken off, with several inches of stem attached. If the individual fruits are pulled off the stems, they are said not to keep well. After they are picked the fruits soon lose their attractive red color, but they can be kept for two or three weeks without deteriorating in flavor. The Chinese sometimes sprinkle them with a salt solution and pack them in joints of bamboo for shipment to distant markets. At the Hawaii Experiment Station it was found that "refrigeration, where it is available, furnishes the best means of preserving the litchi for a limited period in its natural state. . . . There is no doubt that refrigeration will provide a very satisfactory method for placing upon American markets the litchi crop grown in Florida, California, Hawaii, Porto Rico, or Cuba."

The season of ripening in southern China is from May to July. In northern India it is slightly earlier. In Honolulu fresh litchis sell for 50 to 75 cents a pound.


Litchi Pests And Diseases

Little is known regarding the enemies of the litchi in China. Brewster says: "There is a worm which makes a ring around the trunk under the bark. When the circle is complete the tree dies; but the bark is broken by it, and by careful watching this can be prevented before the worm does serious harm. There is also a sort of mildew upon the leaves in certain years that does much harm, and the Chinese do not seem to have any way of dealing with it."

Several insect pests are reported from India. A small brown weevil (Amblyrrhinus poricollis Boh.), the larvae of a gray-brown moth (Plotheia celtis Mo.), and the larvae of Thalassodes quadraria Guen. feed on the leaves. The larvae of Crypto-phlebia carpophaga Wlsm. attack the fruits. Several species of Arbela (notably A. tetraonis Mo.) occur as borers on the tree.

It has been found in Hawaii that the dreaded Mediterranean fruit-fly does not attack the litchi fruit, except when the shell has been broken and the pulp exposed. The litchi fruit-worm, the larva of a tortricid moth (Cryptophlebia illepida Btl.), is said to have caused much damage to the fruit crop at times. The hemispherical scale (Saissetia hemispherica Targ.) occasionally attacks weak trees. The larvae of a moth (Archips postvittanus Walker) sometimes injure the foliage and flowers. A disease which has been termed erinose, caused by mites of the genus Eriophyes, has been reported from Hawaii, where it has become serious on certain litchi trees. Spraying with a solution of 10 ounces nicotin sulfate and 1 3/4 pounds whale-oil soap in 50 gallons of water was found to eradicate the mites.

Plate XVII. The litchi, favorite fruit of the Chinese.
Plate XVII. The litchi, favorite fruit of the Chinese.


Litchi Varieties

Since the litchi has been propagated vegetatively from ancient times, it is natural that many horticultural varieties should be grown at the present day. Most of these, however, are unknown to the western world. Recently they have been studied by Groff, and it is to be hoped that the best will be brought to light, and their successful introduction into the American tropics realized.

The variety Loh mai chi is said to be one of the best in the world. It is grown in the vicinity of Canton. Haak ip is another Canton litchi said to be choice. All together thirty or forty kinds are reported from this region, some of them being particularly adapted for drying, others for eating fresh, and so on.

The varieties cultivated in India are not in all instances clearly distinguished. The best known is Bedana (meaning seedless), a medium-sized fruit in which the seed is small and shriveled. Probably several distinct sorts are known by this name. McLean's, Dudhia, China, and Rose are other varietal names which appear in the lists of Indian nurserymen.

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Popenoe, Wilson. "The Lychee and its Relatives." Manual of Tropical and Subtropical fruits. 1920. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

Published 30 Mar. 2015 LR
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