Litchi chinensis



Litchi chinensis

Sonn. 1782

pronounced: LY-chee chin-EN-siss

(Sapindaceae — the lychee family)


common name: lychee

Litchi and lychee are both of Chinese derivation; chinensis means, of course, ‘from China’. This tree has been cultivated there from ancient times, probably as far back as 2000 BC, and wild trees still grow in the rainforest of Guangdong province and on Hainan Island. In the 1st century AD, fresh lychees were in such demand at the Imperial court that there was a special courier service with fast horses to bring the fruit from Guangdong – once picked, the fruit deteriorates quite quickly.

The lychee attracted the attention of early European travellers to the orient. The English translation (1588) of Juan González de Mendoza’s History of the Great and Mighty Kingdom of China (1585), states:

They haue a kinde of plummes, that they doo call lechias, that are of an exceeding gallant tast, and neuer hurteth any body, although they shoulde eate a great number of them.

The tree was scientifically described by Pierre Sonnerat (1748-1814) on his return from a journey to China and south-east Asia in 1782. Lychee trees were brought to Australia in the 1850s by Chinese mine workers.

This is a medium to large evergreen tree, usually 6 - 12 m in height, but up to 30 m, and it can live for up to about 100 years. The bark of the trunk is grey-black, and on the branches it tends towards a brownish red. The rather btirrle shiny dark green leaves are 10 - 25 cm or longer, with leaflets in 2 - 4 pairs.

The flowers are borne on long inflorescences with many panicles on the current season’s growth. The panicles grow in clusters of about 10, reaching 40 cm in length or even longer, holding hundreds of small white, yellow or green fragrant flowers, without petals. These flowers are male, hermaphrodite-fruiting male (these have the best pollen), or hermaphrodite-fruiting female, occurring in sequence in the inflorescence, although not necessarily in that order.

The fruits mature in 80 - 100 or so days, depending on climate, location and cultivar. They reach up to 5 cm in length and 4 cm in width, varying in shape from spherical to ovoid to heart-shaped. The thin, tough inedible skin is green when immature, ripening to red or pink-red, and is either smooth or covered with small sharp protuberances. This skin breaks quite easily to uncover the fleshy edible portion of the fruit, which is an aril, surrounding one dark brown inedible seed 1 - 3 cm long and 6 - 12 mm wide. Some cultivars produce fruit with shrivelled aborted seeds known as ‘chicken tongues’. These are generally more highly priced, due to their having a greater proportion of edible flesh. The fruit has a high Vitamin C and Potassium content.

Propagation is best done by air-layering or grafting. The latter is preferable, as a stronger root system will usually be produced.

The timber from the Lychee tree is very durable, said to be nearly indestructible. The sapwood is thin and distinct from the hardwood, which is reddish brown. The grain is dense, straight, often slightly wavy, very hard, very strong, and tough. It is moderately difficult to saw, but otherwise machines fairly well. It is used quite a lot in the Philippines, for any purposes for which a very hard and very heavy wood is required: posts and sills, beams, joists, rafters, flooring, the teeth of native sugar mills, wooden anchors, harrow teeth and other parts of agricultural machinery, keelsons of ships, salt water piles.

Many Lepidoptera species use this tree as a food plant for their larvae, including:

      • the moth Autoba versicolor, which attacks the flowers;
      • the moth Autoba abrupta, a pest in Lichee plantations;
      • the Castor Caterpillar Achaea janata;
      • the Hairy Line Blue Deudorix epijarbas;
      • the Macadamia Nut Borer Cryptophlebia ombrodelta;
      • the Small Purple Line Blue Prosotas dubiosa;
      • the 4 o'clock Moth Dysphania numana;
      • the Orange Fruit Borer Isotenes miserana;
      • the moth Oxyodes tricolor;
      • the Flower-eating Caterpillar Pingasa chlora;
      • the Cocoa Pod Borer Conopomorpha cramerella;
      • the Lantana Flower Cluster Moth Epinotia lantana; and
      • the Longan Leaf Eating Looper Oxyodes scrobiculata.


Photographs taken in Wansfall Street, Picnic Bay, 2012
Page last updated 28th January 2019