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Natural Awakenings Naples and Fort Myers

A Love for Lychees: This Opalescent Treasure Flourishes in Southwest Florida

Jul 01, 2011 08:21AM ● By Beth Davis

The lychee (pronounced lee-chee) is an unusual subtropical fruit native to southern China, where it is known as the “king of fruits.” Revered for its perfect balance of sweetness and acidity in a mouthful of luscious pulp, the lychee is widely used in Asian dishes and often appears on the dessert menu.

Lychee seedlings were introduced to Florida from India during the early 1880s, but languished in obscurity until the 1940s, when soldiers and civilian workers that served in the Pacific Theater during World War II returned home with fond memories of the fruit. With its deep green foliage and showy fruit, the tree continues to be an outstanding choice for planting in Southwest Florida.

According to Naples resident and Master Gardener Frank DeNardis, lychees typically ripen in June or July, with an average season lasting about six weeks and mature trees producing up to 150 pounds of fruit. Unlike many fruits, lychees will not ripen further after they have been taken from the tree, so they should be left until they have achieved a full coloration of bright red.

The oval to rounded fruit measures between 1 and 2 inches and is protected by a leathery, rough-textured skin. This inedible, red shield peels to reveal the lychee’s translucent, pearly white flesh that resembles a grape, but is softer. The juicy pulp, both sweet and delicately aromatic, surrounds a seed with a glossy, dark brown coat.

DeNardis recommends harvesting lychees by cutting the main stem bearing the fruit clusters several inches behind the clusters. He says the fresh fruit has a short shelf life—no more than a few days—and is best if consumed right away. Lychees may also be frozen whole (in the peel), canned (without the peel) and dried (in the peel) for later use. Frozen lychees keep quite well when enclosed in a Ziplock bag and make a refreshing dessert, comparable to a fine sorbet.

In addition to offering luscious fruit, lychee trees are attractive additions to most backyards and gardens. They are medium to large, long-living evergreen trees that can grow as high as 25 to 70 feet, depending upon the cultivar. Most varieties fruit irregularly from year to year, so high yields can’t be expected every harvest season. Although the trees can be touchy when young, they become quite hardy with age. Lychees require adequate draining, but can tolerate brief flooding. DeNardis recommends periodic watering of newly planted trees during establishment and times of drought. Once trees are established, they perform well without supplemental irrigation.

The lychee tree is also an excellent landscape choice, because a gardener can easily control its size and shape. “You should prune the tree in the summer, after you’ve harvested the fruit,” notes DeNardis. “You can develop the shape of the tree, control its size and promote better growth.”

Although the lychee is revered for its fresh, delectable taste, its elusively flavored pulp packs a healthy nutritional punch. According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one cup of fresh lychee fruit has only 125 calories, is low in saturated fat and very low in cholesterol and sodium. This “king of fruits” is also a good source of copper, potassium and vitamin C.

For more information or to make an appointment to visit Frank DeNardis’ nursery, located at 108 Viking Way, in Palm River Estates, in Naples, call 239-597-8359.

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