(variously spelled LITCHI, LITCHEE, LYCHEE, LIECHEE, LICHE, LICHEE, LIZHI OR LI ZHI)
Madagascar Litchi chinensis; is the sole member of the genus Litchi in the soapberry family, Sapindaceae.
Litchi chinensis is an evergreen tropical tree that is frequently less than 15 m (49 ft) tall.
The bark is grey-black, the branches a brownish-red. Leaves are 10 to 25 cm (3.9 to 9.8 in) or longer, with leaflets in 2-4 pairs.
Litchi have a similar foliage to the Lauraceae family likely due to convergent evolution. They are adapted by developing leaves that repel water, and are called laurophyll or lauroid leaves. Flowers grow on a terminal inflorescence with many panicles on the current season’s growth. The panicles grow in clusters of ten or more, reaching 10 to 40 cm (3.9 to 15.7 in) or longer, holding hundreds of small white, yellow, or green flowers that are distinctively fragrant.
The Litchi bears fleshy fruits that mature in 80–112 days depending on climate, location, and cultivar. Fruits vary in shape from round to ovoid to heart-shaped.
The Madagascar Litchi fruit variety is HLH Mauritius.
The thin, tough skin is green when immature, ripening to red or pink-red, and is smooth or covered with small sharp protuberances roughly textured. The rind is inedible but easily removed to expose a layer of translucent white fleshy aril with a floral smell and a fragrant, sweet flavor.
Cultivation of Litchi began in the region of southern China, going back to 1059 AD, Malaysia, and northern Vietnam. Unofficial records in China refer to Litchi as far back as 2000 BC. Wild trees still grow in parts of southern China and on Hainan Island. There are many stories of the fruit’s use as a delicacy in the Chinese Imperial Court.
It was first described and introduced to the West in 1656 by Michal Boym, a Polish Jesuit missionary (at that time Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.
First illustration “Litchi Fruit Tree” in Michal Boym’s Flora Sinensis (1657)
In the 1st century, fresh Litchis were in such demand at the Imperial Court that a special courier service with fast horses would bring the fresh fruit from Guangdong.
The Litchi attracted attention of European travelers, such as Juan González de Mendoza in his History of the great and mighty kingdom of China (1585; English translation 1588), based on the reports of Spanish friars who had visited China in the 1570s gave the fruit high praise:
They haue a kinde of plummes, that they doo call lechias, that are of an exceeding gallant tast, and neuer hurteth any body, although they shoulde eate a great number of them.
The Litchi was scientifically described by Pierre Sonnerat (1748–1814) on a return from his travels to China and Southeast Asia. It was then introduced to the Réunion Island in 1764 by Joseph-François Charpentier de Cossigny de Palma.
It was later (after Reunion) introduced to Madagascar which has become a major producer.