Sometimes known as "litchi," the exotic lychee fruit is from the soapberry family.1 The evergreen trees they grow on can reach 30 feet, and produce red ovoid fruits with a tough, "bumpy," easily peeled skin.
Each contains white flesh and a single, large, inedible seed, which makes this fruit a drupe.2 Lychee is juicy with a distinctive, slightly acidic fragrance and flavor, comparable to grapes.3
With the first mention found in Chinese literature circa 1059 A.D., ensuing centuries took lychee production from Burma in the 1600s to India a century later, the West Indies in 1775, and to French and English greenhouses by the 19th century.
Because it does best in warm, humid climates, lychee thrived in Hawaii, Florida, and then California in the late 1800s. Lychees can be found internationally now, from Australia to Brazil, Burma to Africa.4
Lychee yields can be fairly large, with the average 5-year-old tree in India producing 500 fruits and a 20-year-old tree 4,000 to 5,000 fruits. One in Florida produced a record 1,200 tons of lychee in a year.
There seems to be an important differentiation between two types: those leaking juice and those that don't, as well as the appearance of the seed. A narrow "chicken tongue" seed may mean a tougher, almost nut-like flesh.5
Lychees keep well, offering perhaps better-than-fresh quality after a few weeks of storage.6 Dried lychees, or lychee nuts, are larger but similar to raisins.7 Sealed well, they can be stored for as long as a year. Fresh or dried, lychees can be chopped into fruit or green salads. Stuffed lychees are popular with cream cheese and nuts.8
But like other little-known fruits, lychee is being exploited by interests hoping to make good on this super fruit by turning it into a high-cost supplement drink or capsule. The best way to obtain benefits from the fruit is to simply eat it.
Health Benefits of Lychee
Ancient Chinese legend has it that dedication to the health benefits of lychee prompted consumption of several hundred lychees per day. The results of this practice haven’t been reported.9 But there is medical proof that lychees can relieve coughing, ease abdominal pain, and have a positive effect on tumors and swollen glands. The seeds are prescribed for testicular inflammation and premenstrual abdominal pain.
Tea made from lychee peelings is said to cure smallpox and diarrhea. In India, the seeds are ground to make tea for stomach trouble. Parts of the bark, root and lychee flowers are gargled for sore throat.10
Lychee is rich in dietary fiber to help maintain optimum regularity and a healthy weight.11 One of this fruit's most plentiful and unique nutrients is oligonol, which contains a number of valuable antioxidants with the ability to fight flu viruses, improve blood circulation and protect the skin from UV rays.12,13,14
Lychee is loaded with vitamin C, which means it can further protect you against the common cold and other infections, help the body develop resistance, and fight inflammation.15
Other nutritive ingredients in lychee include high levels of B vitamins, such as vitamin B6, as well as potassium (which helps help control heart rate and blood pressure and stave off strokes and heart disease), thiamin, niacin, folate and copper (which helps produce red blood cells, maintains healthy bones, prevents thyroid problems and anemia).16,17,18 All these are vital for maintaining carbohydrate, protein and fat metabolization.
However, consume lychees in moderation because they contain fructose, which may be harmful to your health in excessive amounts.19 Note that there have also been reports of allergies associated with eating lychee fruit.20
Lychee Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 3.5 ounces (100 grams), raw21
|Calcium 5 mg
||Iron 0.31 mg
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
Studies on Lychee
Scientists studied lychee fruits, known to possess rich amounts of flavonoids, polyphenols and proanthocyanidins. Lychee seeds are proven to inhibit breast and liver cancer cell growth.
Because lychee extracts hadn't been tested on colorectal cancer, a new study was undertaken to examine its effects on the proliferation, cell cycle and cell death of two colorectal cancer cell lines. The result: significantly increased colorectal cancer cell death and arrested cell cycle in vitro, evidence that lychee extracts can be considered a potential chemopreventive agent for colorectal cancer.22
Lychee extract also demonstrated significant inhibition of hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer, in vitro and in vivo, altering proliferation and inducing cell death in this cancer type.23
How to Grow Lychees at Home
If you’re lucky enough to be in a region that is conducive for lychee growing, here are some of the environmental factors that you need to consider to ensure you’ll be growing lychee trees successfully:24
- Climate — Lychee trees require cool temperatures during flower formation, which lasts from June to September, and humid conditions during fruit production. Temperature is crucial for the equal production of male and female flowers, with nighttime temperatures of above 20 degrees Celsius resulting in an abundance of male flowers.25
- Water — While well-established lychees may be moderately drought-resistant, new lychee trees need to have a regular water supply. However, flooding may adversely affect growth and fruit yield. Planting them on mounds or elevated beds is recommended if the region is prone to flooding.
- Wind — Areas with strong wind may be a challenging location for lychee tree growth as it may cause tattered leaves and stunted growth. It’s best that lychee trees are planted in wind-protected areas or place where it would be covered by surrounding trees.
Lychee Healthy Recipes:
Lychee Lime Lassi (Yogurt Drink)
✓ 1 cup yogurt (lime, lemon)
✓ 1/2 cup lychees (chopped)
✓ 1 fresh lime juice
✓ 1/2 Tbsp. honey
✓ 6 ice cubes
✓ 1/4 tsp. ground cardamom (fine powder)
- Blend all ingredients in a blender until smooth and frothy.
This recipe makes one serving.
(From Genius Kitchen26)
How to Pick Good Lychees
When shopping for fresh lychees, there are numerous characteristics that you should look out for to make sure that you’re getting only the best fruits for you and your family. These include color, fragrance and fruit hardness. Here are a few tips to help you get the best batch of lychees in the market:27
- Color — The shade of lychee skin varies from pink-red to plum. This depends on the variety you’re buying. When choosing, make sure that you don’t get the fruits that still have a green shade as this indicates that they are still unripe.
- Fragrance — Fresh lychees exude a distinct lush and sweet fragrance.
- Hardness — You can easily determine whether a lychee is ripe by gently pressing on the skin with your thumb. If they’re ripe, the skin would give way a bit but not all the way. Soft lychees are usually already overripe.
Lychee Fun Facts
When Emperor Wu Ti of the Han Dynasty conquered the Nan Yueh, he transplanted hundreds of lychee trees to Chang An in the province of Shensi. Because of his love of the fruit, he built a palace called the “Exalted Lychee Palace.” In the fifth century, the favorite concubine of Emperor Teng Pao loved lychees so much that fast runners were stationed for the sole reason of carrying fresh lychees each year, traveling over 800 miles for the fruits.28
Sweet and exotic, lychees are one of the tropical delights that many Americans are unfamiliar with. That's too bad, because they offer a delightful flavor and satisfying juiciness eaten fresh or in several different culinary endeavors. Lychee skin is reddish and easy to peel, revealing a white, somewhat translucent flesh.
Like many other fruits grown in warm, humid climates such as China, India and even some of the Southern U.S. states, lychees contain an amazing amount of vitamin C. A healthy array of supporting nutrients is also added, including B vitamins, potassium, thiamin, niacin, folate and copper.
In the Midwest and Northern states, this luscious fruit is only as far away as your nearest supermarket, but lychee can be grown in your backyard if you live in sultry climates.