It is a medium-sized evergreen tree, reaching 15–20 m tall, with alternate pinnate , each leaf 15–25 cm long, with 2-8 lateral leaflets 5–10 cm long; the terminal leaflet is absent. The newly emerging young leaves are a bright coppery red at first, before turning green as they expand to full size. The flowers are small, greenish-white or yellowish-white, produced in panicles up to 30 cm long.
The fruit is a drupe, 3–4 cm long and 3 cm in diameter. The outside is covered by a pink-red, roughly-textured rind that is inedible but easily removed. The inside consists of a layer of sweet, translucent white flesh, rich in vitamin C, with a texture somewhat similar to that of a grape. The edible flesh consists of a highly developed aril enveloping the seed. The center contains a single glossy brown -like seed, 2 cm long and 1–1.5 cm in diameter. The seed, similar to a seed, is not poisonous but should not be eaten. The fruit matures from July to October, about 100 days after flowering.
There are two subspecies:
*''Litchi chinensis'' subsp. ''chinensis''. China, Indochina . Leaves with 4 to 8 leaflets.
*''Litchi chinensis'' subsp. ''philippinensis'' Leenh. Philippines, Indonesia. Leaves with 2-4 leaflets.
A major early historical reference to lychees was made in the Tang Dynasty, when it was the favourite fruit of 's favoured concubine . The emperor had the fruit, which was only grown in southern China, delivered by the imperial messenger service's fast horses, whose riders would take shifts day and night in a Pony Express-like manner, to the capital.
In the Chinese classical work, ''Shanglin Fu'' , it is related that the alternate name, 離枝 , meaning leaving its branches, is so-called because once the fruit is picked it deteriorates quickly.
The lychee was first described in the West by Pierre Sonnerat on a return from his travel to China and Southeast Asia.
It was then introduced to the Réunion Island in 1764 by Joseph-Fran?ois Charpentier de Cossigny de Palma. It was later introduced to Madagascar which has become a major producer.
Cultivation and uses
Lychees are extensively grown in the native region of China, and also elsewhere in South-East Asia, especially in north of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, southern Japan, Taiwan, and more recently in California, Hawaii, and Florida in the United States, the wetter areas of eastern Australia and sub-tropical regions of South Africa, also in the state of Sinaloa in Mexico. They require a warm subtropical to tropical climate that is cool but also frost-free or with only very slight winter frosts not below -4°C, and with high summer heat, rainfall, and humidity. Growth is best on well-drained, slightly acidic soils rich in organic matter. A wide range of cultivars is available, with early and late maturing forms suited to warmer and cooler climates respectively. They are also grown as an ornamental tree as well as for their fruit.
Lychees are commonly sold fresh in Vietnamese, and Asian markets, and in recent years, also widely in supermarkets worldwide. The red rind turns dark brown when the fruit is refrigerated, but the taste is not affected. It is also sold canned year-round. The fruit can be dried with the rind intact, at which point the flesh shrinks and darkens.
According to folklore, a lychee tree that is not producing much fruit can be , leading to more fruit production.
There are many different cultivars of lychee , of which two are considered to be the most sought-after.
The "Prestigious Cultivars"
* Sweet Osmanthus Flavour : Named because of the Sweet Osmanthus flavour it contains, this lychee has light red shells, which contains sharp edges. The fruits are described as crispy and sweet. There is a related cultivar, called "Yatou Green" . The shell of this cultivar has dark green spots.
* Glutinous Rice Ball : Named after its thick fruit flesh and sweet flavours. The fresh red shells are not sharp and hard, and the seeds from this cultivar are noticeably smaller than others. Some fruits from this cultivar are seedless.
''V?i thi?u'' is a well-known cultivar in Vietnam. It roots in , Hai Duong province and recently exists in , Bac Giang province.
The fruit is notable for its small globe, red shell, tiny or no seed, very sweet taste and special favour.
Other notable cultivars
*Black Leaves : This cultivar matures less than others, and has big meats and seeds. The shell exhibits a dark red tint.
*Huaizhi : Literally "Branches in the arms of ", this lychee supposedly received its name when a government official toured Lingnan and placed within his arms lychee branches gifted by local villagers.
*March Red : This lychee matures the earliest, and are usually available annually around March. This particular type has a more subtle fragrance and is sweeter than most.
*The Concubine Smiles : Famed as the cultivar of lychee Emperor Xuanzong of Tang brought from the edges of the Tang empire to cheer up Yang Guifei, this lychee matures earlier than others, and has a very light red tint on its shells.
*The Jade Purse : Named because of its large fruits and the thick flesh within. The seed is small in this cultivar.
Name in different languages
The name 'lychee' comes from the , which may have been in Middle Chinese. This name in various forms is used throughout South and East Asia.
Lychee in space
The first lychee in space was launched aboard the Bigelow Aerospace spacecraft ''Genesis II'' on June 28, 2007 as part of the private aerospace firm's "Fly Your Stuff" program. Guy Pignolet de Pluton, a professor at Université de la Réunion in Sainte-Rose, Réunion, provided the lychee which has been imaged on Bigelow Aerospace's website.