During the last 25 years of growing and tasting most of the tropical fruits that can be cultivated in South Florida, I can safely say that the lychee is far and away the most delicious and intriguing. While I certainly would not want to diminish mangos, as I am a great fan of these well- known fruit, I must defer to the billions of Asians who perceive the lychee with a degree of reverence bordering on the spiritual. The lychee has permeated Asian culture for thousands of years and with very good reason.
Just to give you a little background, lychee fruit are great tasting, both in terms of flavor and fragrance and have a cachet that is remarkably unique. Not only that, but they are loaded with vitamin C and have all forms of purported health benefits (ask 1 billion Chinese).
If you like apples (and I love them), you really like certain special varieties. The Honeycrisp, for example, has gained star popularity and fetches a premium price in grocery stores. Lychees are similar in this respect, but to a much more pronounced degree. There are many hundreds of documented lychee varieties grown in Southern China (where they originated and are grown), but in the United States there are only a small handful of varieties which grow well in Southern Florida.
The primary types of lychee fruit grown in South Florida are (just so you know) Brewster, Mauritius, Sweet Heart and Emperor.
The major difference between these types of lychee is the time of year during which the fruit become ripe. Typically the Sweetheart variety ripens first and earliest during the middle to the last week of May. Following closely after the Sweetheart is the Mauritius. Named after the Island of Mauritius in the Southern Indian Ocean (named Tai So in China), this variety is the most common and popular commercial variety grown in both South Florida and other exotic locales like Madagascar. Mauritius fruit are characterized by their sub-acid (slightly tart) flavor and sometimes have a rose note, depending on soil conditions. Favoritism among lychee varieties is a very personal thing. Some people vehemently proclaim Sweet Hearts to be the best whereas others favor Mauritius and Brewster. During the month of June the Brewster variety ripens.
Brewster lychees have a particularly sweet, memorable and remarkable flavor. This lychee is named after the late Reverend William Brewster who was a missionary to China in the late 19th century and who is responsible for introducing the lychee into this country and especially South Florida. His original grove is still visible in Davie, Florida where the trees have reached immense proportions after a century.
Lychee trees happen to be spectacular hardwoods and are fantastic specimen trees to plant out in your yard, if you live in Florida. Actually, if you live pretty much anywhere along the Gulf or Eastern Florida Atlantic Coast you can successfully cultivate these trees, providing you can protect them against a hard freeze (a hard freeze is when the mercury drops below 32 degrees F for an extended period). There are lots of ways to freeze protect your pet lychee trees and I personally know of many individuals who grow them indoors and in greenhouses in Northern climates, including New York City.
Speaking about the time of year that lychees become ripe… Lychee fruit start to become ripe during the latter part of April in Mexico and transition to ripeness in Florida during the latter half of May. Sweetheart and Mauritius fruit are the first to ripen in Florida during the end of May and the beginning of June From the middle to the end of June Brewster and Emperor lychee fruit ripen. The Emperor lychee tends to be one of the larger of the lychee fruit varieties. We have observed Emperor fruit as large as small plums with a weight approaching 1/10th lb.
When you compare lychee fruit to other common types of fruit the ripening period is not unusual. An 8 week time frame is fairly respectable and you can enjoy these fruit during this 6 – 8 week period.
During the last several years a new an unbelievable lychee fruit has emerged and that is the “Sweet Heart”. This lychee is characterized by a tiny seed (a very desirable characteristic) and a large quantity of sweet flesh (aril).
This spectacular lychee has caused a profound sensation is South Florida. Now everyon
e who knows anything about lychees wants Sweet Hearts. If you are a lychee connoisseur you will appreciate the Sweet Heart lychee. The fruit can be very large and the seed is always tiny. This is a major issue amongst lychee aficionados as often the seed represents as much as 50% of the volume of a lychee fruit.
Another matter, that is often confounding, is determining when a lychee is properly ripened. Many tropical fruits such as bananas, mangos, pineapples and guavas for instance, will continue to ripen long after they have been harvested. Refrigeration will slow the ripening process, but not arrest it. This is definitely not the case with lychee fruit, which do not continue to ripen after they are picked. You would think that most growers would be aware of this, but it is amazing how many are not. Part of the problem is the desire for growers to get the maximum price per pound for their fruit. The first fruit to market generally fetch a higher price per pound and growers will often pick their fruit early just to capture a high price at the expense of delivering poor quality fruit.
When the fruit isn’t ripe and a person samples fresh lychee fruit for the first time, it is highly unlikely that they will try eating the fruit again. In fact they are very likely to advise their friends and co-workers to never again purchase these wonderful fruits. Growers that ship unripe fruit have only to blame themselves for the consequences.
Growers don’t always ship unripe fruit on purpose. It is a widely held misconception that ripeness of lychees is a function of the skin color. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The common popular myth is that when a lychee gets really red or dark maroon in color it is ready to pick and eat. Not so! A lychee is ready to pick when the small bumps on the skin (pericarp) of the lychee smooth out. As the fruit ripens there is a corresponding increase in the percentage of internal fruit sugars. This process along with natural maturation causes the fruit to swell and the skin to become smooth. Fruit that is still green, in the case of certain varieties (Haak yip and Mauritius for example) can be totally ripe and ready to eat. Fruit that is not exposed to the sun, such as that hanging inside the canopy of the tree, often does not color up, but still ripens and develops good flavor.
Lychee fruit must be refrigerated immediately upon purchase. Lychees can retain their freshness for up to two days after picking if kept at room temperature (70 – 75 degrees F). After this point in time they must be refrigerated and will keep about 10 days. After extended refrigeration the fruit will lose their color and the skin will begin to dry out, although the fruit will continue to be sweet and tasty. Rather than ripen, the fruit lose retained moisture while being refrigerated and this process tends to concentrate fruit sugars, which leads to the misconception that the fruit continue to ripen once picked off the tree.
If you have not eaten your fruit after one week in the fridge, either you do not like the fruit or you are simply too full from eating too many lychees. At this point you should seriously consider freezing the fruit. If you decide to do this, and it is a good idea if you want to share your fruit with friends and family during the holiday season, you should make sure that you freeze the fruit properly. The correct method for freezing lychee fruit involves rinsing it with lemon or lime juice, (which are anti-oxidants) and freezing the material in a vacuumed freezer storage bag. Using an anti-oxidant prevents browning of the skin. This browning process is known as glycation and is similar to the browning of apple flesh after you take a bite. Glycation is glucose or sugar related oxidation and is preventable with a vitamin C type anti-oxidant. Lychee fruit will maintain their beautiful color for upwards of two years after freezing and being prepared this way.
When you thaw out the lychees during the holiday months most all of the flavor and fragrance will be preserved. If you are a fan of sorbets you will especially enjoy frozen lychees. Remove the frozen fruit from the freezer bag and briefly rinse them in tap water. Within a minute or so they will be ready to eat. The skin easily peels off and you can pop the succulent frozen fruit into your mouth for a delightful holiday treat.
During the process of picking and sorting out Sweet Heart lychees we separate the good from the bad. Fresh fruit are picked and sorted according to the best fruit that arrive at our evaluation station.
If you live in Florida or along the Gulf Coast it is possible to grow lychee trees, providing you protect them against a hard freeze. Lychees are evergreen hardwoods and will thrive very well growing in containers. They are also suited to growing in small yards. If your yard is well protected against the wind and hard freezes you can expect a vigorous growing tree that will eventually have to be pruned. If this is not possible you can grow the tree in a container that can be moved indoors should a freeze occur.
The trees crave an organic soil environment and love water. This is an inherited characteristic from originating in sub-tropical mountain rain forests in South China, North Vietnam and Thailand. In Southern China there are both mountain and lowland varieties of lychee. We have discovered that these trees do spectacularly well when planted in a soil mix that contains a soil ecosystem consisting of a spectrum of diverse organisms found in sub-tropical rain forest soils. If you decide to grow a lychee tree in a container you should endeavor to recreate such a soil.
Lychee trees make fantastic specimen trees for any sub-tropical yard type and can be integrated into small and large yard landscaping designs.
Kiwi fruit are now a regular fixture in the fresh produce department of most U.S. grocery stores. Kiwi fruit went from being a sub-tropical oddity to one of the most popular fruits that are eaten out of hand and used in a wide diversity of garnishes. Lychee fruit, which to this day remain largely unknown to most Americans, are vastly superior to Kiwis and I expect will become immensely popular when the word finally gets out.