Lychee is a fruit from the soapberry family, and is sometimes called "litchi."1 The white flesh inside it is encased in red, tough and bumpy skin in an ovoid shape. You'll find it growing from trees that can reach a height of 30 feet.
Interestingly, the lychee is actually a drupe because it contains a single, large and inedible seed.2 The flesh is juicy with a distinctive, slightly acidic fragrance and flavor that resembles grapes.3
One of the earliest records of lychee was found in Chinese literature around 1059 A.D. From there, geographical cultivation expanded in the succeeding centuries, reaching Burma in the 1600s. Lychee made its way to the West Indies in 1775, eventually reaching Europe in 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
During the early days of lychee production in America (around the 1800s), the trees thrived best in states with warm, humid climates such as Hawaii, Florida and California. Lychees are now grown around the world, including Australia, Brazil and Africa. Harvesting season yields plentiful fruits. A 5-year-old tree in India can produce 500 fruits, while a 20-year-old tree can provide up to 5,000. In a more extreme example, one tree in Florida produced a whopping 1,200 tons of lychee in a year.4
There are two types of lychee: those that leak juice and those that don't, as well as the appearance of the seed. A narrow "chicken tongue" seed may indicate a tougher, almost nut-like flesh.5
Lychees can keep their quality even after several weeks in storage.6 Dried lychees are also available, which are sometimes called lychee nuts — these products have a similar appearance to raisins.7 More impressive is that lychees can last for up to a year when sealed properly. Fresh or dried, lychees are a wonderful addition to fruit or green salads. You can also stuff cream cheese and nuts into lychees for a scrumptious snack.8
However, like other little-known fruits, lychee may be exploited by scheming companies hoping to turn this "superfruit" 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
The scientific study of lychee in recent times can be credited to the ancient Chinese, who consumed it for its purported health benefits. The results of their lychee-eating traditions haven't been reported,9 but a 2016 study demonstrated antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties in lychee. The leaves have antioxidant benefits as well.10
One of the traditional uses of lychee is making tea from its peel, which was said to help fight against smallpox and diarrhea. India, on the other hand, used ground lychee seeds for their tea, which may help fight against stomach problems. The other parts of the plant, such as bark, roots, and flowers are turned into decoctions and gargled to provide relief from sore throat.11,12
You'll find plenty of dietary fiber in lychee, which is important in promoting a healthy digestive system and body weight.13Lychee is also rich in oligonol, which has the ability to help fight flu viruses, improve blood circulation and protect the skin from UV rays.14,15,16
Vitamin C is abundant in lychee, and a hearty intake of this nutrient may boost your immune system to protect you against the common cold and other infections, help the body develop resistance and fight inflammation.17
The list of nutrients doesn't stop there, however. You'll find high levels of choline in lychee, as well as potassium, which helps help control heart rate and blood pressure to help reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease.18 There's also thiamin, niacin, folate and copper, which may help with hormone synthesis, lowering the risk of anemia and maintaining healthy blood pressure.19,20
While the benefits are enticing, be sure to consume lychees in moderation, as they contain fructose, which can be harmful to your health in excessive amounts.21 Note that there have also been reports of allergies associated with eating lychee.22 For more information on the nutrients you can get from this fruit, you may refer to the table below.23
Lychee Nutrition Facts
Serving Size: 3.5 ounces (100 grams), raw
|Calcium 5 mg
Studies on Lychee
Lychee is rich in flavonoids, polyphenols and proanthocyanidins, prompting scientists to take a closer look at this fruit. In particular, they discovered that the seeds helped inhibit breast and liver cancer cell growth.24
In another study, lychee extracts were examined regarding their effects on the proliferation, cell cycle and cell death of colorectal cancer cell lines. Results showed that the extracts significantly increased colorectal cancer cell death and arrested cell cycle in vitro. In conclusion, the lychee extracts can be considered a potential chemopreventive agent for colorectal cancer.25
In a 2006 study published in Cancer Letters, lychee extracts significantly inhibited hepatocellular carcinoma, a type of liver cancer, in vitro and in vivo, altering proliferation and inducing cell death in this cancer type.26
How to Grow Lychees at Home
Growing lychees at home can be a successful endeavor if you have a large garden, since the trees can grow quite tall. If you're up to the task, the following tips can help make growing lychees easier:27
- 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.28
- Water — While well-established lychees may be moderately drought-resistant, new lychee trees need 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 tablespoon raw honey
✓ 6 ice cubes
✓ 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom (fine powder)
- Blend all ingredients in a blender until smooth and frothy.
This recipe makes one serving.
(Recipe from Genius Kitchen29)
How to Pick Good Lychees
Picking good lychee requires essential knowledge of color, fragrance and fruit hardness before heading out to the market. Here are several tips to help you pick the best batch of lychees in the market:30
- 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
In China, Emperor Wu Ti of the Han Dynasty transplanted hundreds of lychee trees to Chang An in Shensi province. He loved lychees to the point he built a palace called the "Exalted Lychee Palace."
In another story, the favorite concubine of Emperor Tang Xuanzong loved lychees so much that teams of horses were stationed for the sole reason of carrying fresh lychees to the Imperial court before they became spoiled.31,32
Lychees are a sweet and exotic tropical delight that many Americans are unfamiliar with. They offer a delightful flavor and satisfying juiciness, and can be eaten fresh or used in various culinary endeavors. Lychee skin is reddish and easy to peel, with a white, somewhat translucent flesh underneath.
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 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.