SCIENTIFIC NAME: Litchi chinensis
FAMILY: Sapindaceae

The lychee or litchi which belongs to the Sapindaceae or soapberry family originated in southern China and possibly in northern Vietnam and the Malay Peninsula. Lychee trees grow wild in abundance on Hainan Island near northern Vietnam mainly at an elevation of 600 to 800 m, and below 500 m in hilly areas in Leizhou Peninsula, in the west of Guangdong and the east of Guangxi. The natural distribution of wild lychee is from south of Shiwan Mountains, Liu Wan Mountains, Yunkai Mountains to Hainan Island. Wild lychees are a major species in several lowland rainforest areas of Hainan Island and may account for 50% of the virgin forest composition.

The first official recording of lychee in China appeared in the 2nd century BC, while unofficial records date back to 1766BC. A "Lychee Register" indicated that there were 16 cultivars in Guangdong by 1034 and 30 in Fujian by 1059. These figures had climbed to 100 by 1076 in Guangdong and a similar number, somewhat later in Fujian. There is mention of cultivars in scientific literature before this time (3rd, 4th and 9th century), but morphological descriptions were not provided until the 11th century and the first detailed description did not appear until 1612. The Chinese lychee growers could distinguish the best types for cultivation on the plains, hills or levee banks by the 2nd century BC, but there is no indication of how, when or why they selected certain selections. Certainly, better cultivars could not be disseminated before clonal propagation became available (air layering in the 4th century and grafting in the 14th century). Propagation by seed, however, continued for sometime, but was eventually eliminated by the 16th century.

Some cultivars in China have a very long history of cultivation, while others are relatively new. It is reported that cultivars such as Sum Yee Hong, Haak Yip, Kwai May, No Mai Chee, Wai Chee and Seong Sue Wai have a history of 500 to 600 years or more, while others such as Bah Lup, Heong Lai and Tim Naan date back 200 to 300 years ago. Souey Tung is a relatively young cultivar (about 100 years old).

The lychee was introduced to the tropical and subtropical world from the end of the 17th century and now is found situated within 15-35° latitude in most countries. Large commercial industries have developed in Taiwan, Thailand, India, Vietnam, Madagascar and South Africa. There is substantial interest in the crop in Australia, Mauritius, Reunion, Spain, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Mexico and the United States. Total world production is about 0.5 million metric tons (mMT), similar to that of the related longan (Dimocarpus longan) and rambutan and pulasan (Nephelium lappaceum and N. mutabile), but well below other tropical tree fruit such as citrus (73 mMT), banana (71 mMT), mango (15.7 mMT), papaya (4.4 mMT) and avocado 1.5 mMT). There are collections of lychee cultivars in several of the lychee-growing areas of the world. The major collections are in China, Taiwan, Thailand, Australia and U.S.A. (Florida and Hawaii).


Main growing areasMajor cultivars



Wai Chee, Haak Yip, Sum Yee Hong, Kwai May and No Mai Chee

Souey Tung, Haak Yip, Tai So and Brewster

Taiwan131000Tai ChungHaak Yip and Sah Keng
Thailand10000Chiang Mai, Lamphun and FangTai So, Wai Chee and Baidum
India90000Bihar StateShahi, Rose Scented and China
Madagascar50000Eastern coastal beltTai So
South Africa8000Transvaal-Lowveld RegionTai So, Bengal (Madras)
Region5000Wet coastal/subcoastal areasTai So
Mauritius1000-Tai So
Australia2000Eastern coastal stripFay Zee Siu, Tai So, Bengal, Wai Chee, Kwai May Pink and Salathiel
Tai So and Kaimana

Lychee trees are distributed in seven provinces in southern China of which Guangdong and Fujian are the main producing areas followed by Guangxi, Sichuan and Yunnan. Guangdong produces about 65% of the crop. There are over 80 countries growing lychees in Guangdong, but lychee production is centred, in and around Guangzhou. The lychee ranks second after citrus as the most important fruit crop in Guangdong. In Fujian, citrus and longan are more important. The area under lychee is about 300000 ha, which is more than the total area under horticulture in Australia. Yields of 10 t/ha are possible in well-managed orchards in Guangdong. Average yields are about 2 t/ha. Yields are lower in Fujian, where lychee is considered a poorer proposition.

There are more than 100 lychee cultivars in China, probably because of the long history of cultivation and propagation of the crop by seed. The most important cultivars in Guangdong and Fujian are Sum Yee Hong, Tai So, Chen Zi (Brewster), Souey Tung, Haak Yip, Fay Zee Siu, Kwai May, Wai Chee and No Mai Chee. Wai Chee accounts for over 50% of plantings in Guangdong and bears consistentlY,because it flowers late and avoids the low temperatures of early spring. In Fujian, Haak Yip and Souey Tung dominate plantings. Other cultivars grown commercially include: Bah Lup (Pinyin: Bai La), Jin Feng, Chong Yun Hong (Lhuang Yuan Hong), Heong Lai (Xin Xing Xiang Li), Tim Naan (Tian Yan), Kwa Lok (theng Cheng Gua Lu), Seong Sue Wai (Shang Shu Huai), and Soot Wai Zee (Xue Huai li).

In general, No Mai Chee and Kwai May are very highly regarded for excellent eating quality and a high proportion of chicken tongue (or aborted seed) fruit. Fay Zee Siu is also popular because of its excellent eating and its large size (24-32g) fruit. Some cultivars are best eaten fresh, others are more suitable for canning or drying. Cultivars for export include Sum Yee Hong, Fay Zee Siu, Haak Yip, Kwai May, Wai Chee and No Mai Chee.

Lychee air-layers, mainly Haak Yip and Chong Yun Hong (Pinyin:Zhuang Yuan Hong), were introduced into the northern part of Taiwan from mainland China in 1760 and again in 1860. However, commercial production did not begin until the late 1920s when further introductions of the main Chinese cultivars were grown in southern areas away from strong winds of the Pacific Ocean.

Since the 1920s, lychee plants have been distributed to every district in Taiwan except the north where the weather during winter and spring is cold and wet. The major area of cultivation is the central and southern districts of the island, where there are large areas of alluvial sandy loam. Yields are higher on these soils compared to those on the mountain slopes. Temperature and moisture conditions are ideal for satisfactory flowering during winter, and mature trees may carry 500 kg of fruit in a season. Haak Yip is the most popular cultivar and accounts for over 80% of plantings. Other important cultivars are Sum Yee Hong, Chong Yun Hong, No Mai Chee and more recently Sah Keng.

Lychee ranks eleven in the list of economic fruit crops in Thailand. The main production centre is in the north at elevations of 300 to 600 m between Chiang Mai, Lamphum and Fang in a monsoonal climate with a distinct dry season. Plantings have also been established in the more tropical humid high rainfall areas north of Bangkok, but flowering is more consistent and yields higher in the cooler elevated areas.

Although the lychee has a long history in Thailand, better cultivars from China were only introduced in the early 1950s. The main cultivars in the Chiang Mai Area are Tai So and to a lesser degree Wai Chee, Baidum and Chacapat. A different set of cultivars has been developed for production in the tropical areas, including Luk Lai, Sampao Kaow, Kaloke Bai Yaow, Kom and Red China. Quality of these seedling selections does not compare favourably to the cultivars grown in northern districts.

Norther.n Vietnam is part of the original area of distribution of lychee. Current production is about 6000 t from 1500 ha, and is expected to rise to about 40000 t by the year 2000. Production is mainly in the area radiating from Hanoi in lowland and upland areas up to an elevation of 150 m (Lat. 21°N) where the winters are cool and dry enough to provide reliable flowering. Lychee has a high priority in new tree fruit plantings along with citrus. Increased production will not only increase local consumption, but will also earn much needed foreign exchange. The industry is mainly dependent on one cultivar, Thieu (Vai Thieu) which was introduced from China about 100 to 300 years ago. Several cultivars from Australia have been recently imported, but have not been planted out in commercial orchards as yet.

Lychee reached India through Burma about the end of the 17th century, and India now produces nearly as many lychees as China. During the last 200 years, it has spread to several areas. More than 70% of the crop is produced in northern Bihar. Other lychee growing states include West Bengal (15%) and Uttar Pradesh (6%).

Most of the lychee cultivars in India have been developed locally from seedlings from Chinese selections. Although a large number of lychee cultivars are grown most of them are not widely planted. The same cultivar may be known under several different names in different places. However, few of the Indian cultivars appear to be renamed Chinese cultivars as has happened in Thailand, Hawaii and Australia. Hot and desiccating winds is the main factor limiting lychee cultivation in several districts and cultivars have been selected which can reputedly set and carry fruit under these adverse conditions.

Of the 10 commercial cultivars growing in Bihar, Shahi (Muzaffarpur), Rose-Scented and China are the most popular, due to their large fruit size and excellent quality. Other important cultivars are Deshi, Kasba, Purbi, and Early and Late Bendana. The most popular cultivars in the Punjab are: Saharanpur (Early Large Red), Dehradun, Calcutta (Calcutta, Kalcuttia or Calcutta Late), Shahi, Seedless Late (Late Seedless or Late Bedana) and Rose-Scented.

There is evidence that lychee trees were imported into South Africa from Mauritius in the early 1870s. From 1886 onwards, the Durban Botanical gardens distributed air-layers of those introductions within the country, mainly for planting in Natal. Commercial orchards are currently spread on the western boundary of South Africa from Levubu and Tzaneen in the northern Transvaal, the central and southern Lowveld near Hazyview, Nelspruit, Malelane and Barberton down to the North and South Coast of Natal near Durban and Port Shepstone. About half the crop is exported to Europe, and the export market is in direct competition with fruit from Madagascar.

The commercial lychee industry in South Africa is mainly dependent on a single cultivar, H.L.H. Mauritius (80% of plantings), so named because practically all the trees throughout the country are clonal propagules from an original tree imported from Mauritius by H.L. Hood. This cultivar resembles the Chinese cultivar Tai So, and any differences in tree or fruit characteristics are very minor and not agronomically significant; it may be a seedling or sport of Tai So. The main disadvantage with Tai So is its large seed. Because the industry is dependent on a single cultivar, the production season is unduly short at any location. However, fruit are normally available from the end of November to mid-February due to differences in environmental conditions in the different lychee growing areas. The only other cultivar grown (20% of plantings) to any extent is Bengal (Madras). Chinese, Indian and Australian cultivars have also been imported into South Africa but their performance and yield have yet to be fully evaluated and none have been released for commercial cultivation.

Lychee was introduced by Professor C. Oppenheimer to Israel in 1934, although commercial production did not start for another 40 to 50 years. Production is about 500 t from about 200 ha, and is nearly all exported to Europe.

Lychee orchards are now being established in most areas of Israel, except in the Negev and Arava regions. The main cultivars are Mauritius (early maturity) and Floridian (late), but plantings also include Kaimana, Late Seedless, Garnet, Early Large Red and No Mai Chee. After harvest, the lychees are treated with sulphur dioxide for 20 minutes and after a few hours with hydrochloric acid to maintain the red skin colour, although sometimes the treatments taints the fruit.

The lychee arrived in Madagascar from Mauritius in 1770. Production is estimated to be about 50000 t and is mainly confined to the moist eastern seaboard. About 5000 to 10000 t are exported to Europe, mostly by ship. Trees grow in a haphazard fashion, with most plantings less than 1 ha. Many of the commercial orchards are 20 to 30 years old.

Mauritius (or Tai So) is the most important cultivar. Fruit are usually sulphured by burning sulphur in old shipping containers, although sulphur dioxide fumigation is also being trialled. Fruit generally have a better appearance than those sent from South Africa.

Lychee planting material was first introduced from the Orient in 1764 and production in 1985 was about 1000 t. The Mauritius lychee was selected from a seedling on the island in the 1870s. Practically all the trees in Mauritius, Malagasy Republic and South Africa are clonal propagules from this tree.

The lychee arrived in Reunion over 200 years ago from Mauritius. Annual production is about 5000 t, of which about 10% is exported to France. The main cultivar is Tai So (Mauritius).

The lychee was introduced into Australia by Chinese migrants over 100 years ago. They originally came to work the goldfields in northern Queensland and ate fruit and threw the seeds away. They did not go directly into agriculture or plant crops. Isolated trees of 80 to 100 years are found in these areas. Lychee plants (seedlings?) were growing in the Sydney Botanic Gardens in 1854 and in Brisbane by the late 1850s. Air-layers (Wai Chee) were not introduced until the 1930s. Plant material was subsequently distributed further along the coast and production extends from Cairns and the Atherton Tableland in northern Queensland to Coffs Harbour in northern New South Wales. Tai So and Bengal are the main cultivars. This is because they were the only planting material readily available during the expansion of the industry in the early to mid 197os. These cultivars have now lost favour and current expansion is mainly based on cultivars such as Kwai May Pink, Salathiel and Wai Chee in cooler areas and Fay Zee Siu in warmer locations.

The first lychee (cv. Tai So) was brought to Hawaii in 1873 and was still growing in 1972. Other introductions were made by the Department of Agriculture and private individuals during the first half of the 20th century. Lychees are grown up to an elevation of about 500 m and occasionally up to 1000 m on the five major islands of Hawaii. Commercial plantings peaked during the late 1960s with about 25,000 trees and production of about 250 t (average yield of 10 kg per tree). About 20% of the crop was exported to the mainland. Production declined during the next decade because of low yields and quarantine restrictions with exported fruit. Since 1980, there has been renewed interest in the crop, mainly due to the availability of better cultivars and improvements in post-harvest technology.

Tai So is the only cultivar grown on a wide scale. Fruit ripen from May to June. Because of the irregular bearing habit and short cropping season of Tai So, other cultivars have been tried, including Brewster, Haak Yip and Sweetcliff (similar to Wai Chee but different to Tim Nann or Sweetcliff from China) which were imported earlier in this century, and Kaimana which is a seedling selection of Haak Yip developed in the 1970s.

Southern Florida is well known as the centre of tropical fruit production in the U.S.A. This is the result of an active plant introduction and research program. Florida's commercial lychee plantings reached a peak of about 130 ha in 1957 but declined to less than half these figures in 1966 because of cold damage and urban expansion. Lychee production has been on a steady increase since 1975 when plantings shifted towards the less frost-prone southern areas, but suffered a setback in 1992 with Hurricane Andrew when about a third of the trees were lost. Many factors have contributed to the interests in lychee production including the search for alternative crops to avocado and limes, greater demand for exotics and the opportunity for higher returns.

Brewster has been the main lychee cultivar in Florida since the Reverend W. M. Brewster obtained air-layers of Brewster (or Chen Zi), from Fujian Province in 1903. There are many orchards with mature trees 12 m across. Brewster matures from mid-June to mid-July and has good colour and flavour.

Tai So (Mauritius) has become very popular in recent years and is more consistent in bearing compared to Brewster. However, it suffers from wind-damage. There is also the problem of limb breakage after ice-loading. Tai So matures about two weeks before Brewster. Other cultivars under evaluation include Sweetcliff (small fruit and susceptible to micronutrient deficiencies, especially Fe), Bengal (irregular yielding) and Haak Yip. New plantings include Kwai May Pink from Australia.

Anonymous. (1978). Annals of lychee in Guangdong Province. Guangdong Academy of Agricultural Science. 156 pp.

Batten, D.J. (1984). Lychee varieties (Agfact H6.27 New South Wales Department of Agriculture. 15 pp.

Batten, D.J. and McConchie, C.A. (1993). Fruit set, maturation and breeding in lychee. Report on a visit to China under the Australia/China Agricultural Co-operation Agreement. 17 pp.

Batten, D.J., B.J. Watson, and K.R. Chapman (1982). Urgent need to clarify and standardise variety names. Queensland Fruit and Vegetable News 53, 890-894.

Fivas, J. (1994). Litchi production in Israel. Yearbook of the South African Litchi Growers' Association. 6, 39-41.

Fu, L.Y., Swu, X. and Zhou, Q.M. (1985). An album of Guangdong litchi varieties in full colour. Guangdong Province Academy of Agricultural Science. 78 pp.

Groff, G.W. (1921). The lychee and lungan. Judd Company, New York. 188 pp.

Menzel, C.M. (1992). Lychee growing and marketing in Vietnam. Yearbook of the South African Litchi Growers' Association. 4, 21-24.

Menzel, C.M. and Simpson, D.R. (1986). Description and performance of major lychee cultivars in subtropical Queensland. Queensland Agricultural Journal. 112, 125-136.

Menzel, C.M. and Simpson, D.R. (1990). Performance and improvement of lychee cultivars: a review. Fruit Varieties Journal. 44, 197-215.

Milne, D.L. and Schoeman, M. (1992). A view of the Madagascar and its litchi industry. Yearbook of the South African Litchi Growers' Association. 4, 11-13.

Oosthuizen, J.H. (1991). Lychee cultivation in South Africa. Yearbook of the Australian Lychee Growers Association. 1, 51-55.

Map of Lychee History.
Christopher Menzel

DATE: March 1995

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