While living in exile at Canton, the poet Su Tung-po declared that litchis would reconcile one to eternal banishment. Yet he did not allow his enthusiasm to draw him into gastronomic indiscretions, for he limited himself to a modest three hundred a day, while other men (so he says) did not stop short of a thousand.
Chang Chow-ling, an illustrious statesman of the eighth century of our era, composed a poem on the litchi in which he praised it as the most luscious of all fruits. Modern Chinese critics fully concur in this opinion. Neither the orange nor the peach, two of the finest fruits of southern China, is held to equal it in quality.
Nor is the litchi one of those rare and delicate fruits known only to the favored few. In southern Asia, where its cultivation dates back at least two thousand years, it is grown extensively and millions are familiar with it. That it should still be unknown in most parts of the western tropics is probably due to the perishable nature of the seeds. Before the days of steam navigation, it was difficult to transport them successfully from one continent to another.
"An orchard of litchis," wrote the eminent E. Bonavia of India, "say of a few hundred trees, and with ordinary care, would give a handsome and almost certain annual return for not improbably a hundred years." While it has been considered that the litchi is somewhat exacting in its cultural requirements, it can be grown successfully in many parts of the tropics and subtropics. Now that it has been established in tropical America, there is no reason why it should not there become one of the common fruits, nor why fresh litchis should not be found on fruit-stands of northern cities at least as abundantly as are the dried ones at present.
It is in the form of dried litchis, "litchi nuts," that North Americans are usually acquainted with this fruit. The Chinese who live in the United States import them in large quantities, and are particularly prone to indulging in them at the time of their New Year celebrations. But the dried litchi resembles the fresh one even less than the dried apple of the grocery store resembles a Gravenstein just picked from the tree. To appreciate its excellence, one must taste the fresh litchi; although a fairly true estimate of it may be acquired from the canned or preserved product, which much resembles preserved Muscat grapes in flavor.
Fig. 42. Fruits of a good variety of the litchi. Kinds which are altogether seedless have been reported, but in the best-known sorts the seed is about the size of the one here shown. (X J)
Judging by the experience of the past few years, it should be possible to produce litchis commercially in southwestern Florida (the Fort Myers region), where there is relative freedom from frost and where the soils are deep and moist. It is doubtful whether there are any localities in southern California adapted to commercial litchi culture, but trees have been grown at Santa Barbara and in the foothill region near Los Angeles (Monrovia, Glendora). While the dry climate and cool winter weather of California are unfavorable, it seems probable that litchis may be grown on a small scale in this state, if planted in sheltered situations and given protection from frost for the first few years.
Because of its value as an ornamental tree, the litchi is recommended for planting in parks and gardens. It grows to an ultimate height of 35 or 40 feet (less in some regions), and forms a broad round-topped crown well supplied with glossy light green foliage. The leaves are compound, with two to four pairs of elliptic-oblong to lanceolate, sharply acute, glabrous leaflets 2 to 3 inches long. The flowers, which are small and unattractive, are borne in terminal panicles sometimes a foot in length. They are said to appear in northern India in February and in China during April. The fruits, which are produced in loose clusters of two or three to twenty or even more, have been likened to strawberries in appearance. In shape they are oval to ovate, in diameter 1 1/2 inches in the better varieties, and in color deep rose when fully ripe, changing to dull brown as the fruit dries. The outer covering is hard and brittle, rough on the surface and divided into small scale-like areas. The seed is small, shriveled, and not viable in some of the grafted varieties; in seedlings it is as large as a good-sized castor-bean, and glossy dark brown in color. Surrounding it and separating from it readily is the flesh (technically aril), which is white, translucent, firm, and juicy. The flavor is subacid, suggestive of the Bigar-reau cherry or (according to some) the Muscat grape.
Regarding the origin and early history of the fruit Alphonse DeCandolle says: "Chinese authors living at Pekin only knew the litchi late in the third century of our era. Its introduction into Bengal took place at the end of the eighteenth century. Every one admits that the species is a native of the south of China, and, Blume adds, of Cochin-China and the Philippine Islands, but it does not seem that any botanist has found it in a truly wild state. This is probably because the southern part of China towards Siam has been little visited. In Cochin-China and in Burma and at Chittagong the litchi is only cultivated."
Macgowan 1 recounts that litchis were first sent as tribute to the emperor Kao Tsu about 200 B.C. These were dried fruits, however; later fresh ones were forwarded by relays of men, and one is happy to learn that though the cost in human life was frightful they reached the emperor in good condition. The Emperor Wu Ti (140-87 B.C.) made several attempts to bring trees from Annam and plant them in his garden at Chang-an, but he was not successful in raising them.
According to Walter T. Swingle, the first published work devoted exclusively to fruit-culture was written by a Chinese scholar in 1056 a.d. on the varieties of the litchi.
The principal provinces of China in which litchis are grown are Fukien, Kwantung, and Szechwan. In Kwangtung Province alone the annual crop is said to be twenty million to thirty million pounds, worth $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. The region around Canton is considered the most favorable part of China for litchi culture. North of Foochow the tree is not successful.
While litchis are by no means so extensively grown in India as they are in southern China, there are several districts in which they are produced commercially. The most important are said to be in Bengal; about Muzaffarpur (in Bihar); and at Saharanpur (United Provinces of Agra and Oudh). E.
1 Journal of the Agri-Horticultural Society of India, 1884, p. 195.
Bonavia says: "The tree does admirably in Lucknow, and should do as well all over the northwestern provinces, but it flourishes best, I believe, in Bengal. Who knows what untold litchi wealth there may be in the fine black soil of the central provinces, so centrally situated for fruit trade?"
In Cochin-China, in Madagascar, and in a few other countries of the East, the tree is cultivated on a limited scale. In Hawaii, where it is believed to have been introduced about 1873, it has succeeded remarkably well, and much attention has lately been given to its commercial cultivation, without, however, any large orchards having been established as yet.
According to William Harris, it was introduced into Jamaica in 1775, but it is still rare in that island. A tree at Santa Barbara, California, which produced a few fruits in 1914, was the first to come into bearing in the United States. While the litchi is believed to have been planted in Florida as early as 1886, it was not until 1916 that the first fruits were produced in that state. These were from plants introduced from China in 1906. A few trees have borne in Cuba, Brazil, and other parts of tropical America.
The common name of this fruit is variously spelled, - litchi, lichee, lychee, leechee, lichi, laichi, and so on. Yule and Burnell state that the pronunciation in northern China is lee-chee, while in the southern part of the country it is ly-chee. Since the form litchi has been fixed as a part of the botanical name of the species, and since it is employed extensively as the common name, it may be well to retain it in preference to others. The pronunciation ly-chee, which is used in the region where the fruit is grown, is generally preferred to leechee. Botanically the plant is Litchi chinensis, Sonn. NepheliumLitchi, Cambess., is a synonym.
While the litchi is probably best as a fresh fruit, Frank N. Meyer says that it is considered by some to be more delicious when preserved (canned) than when fresh; and he adds: "No good dinner, even in northern China (where the litchi is not grown) is really complete without some of these delicious little fruits." The dried litchi tastes something like the raisin. Consul P. R. Josselyn of Canton writes: "There are two ways of drying litchis, - by sun and by fire. The sun dried litchi has a finer flavor and commands a better price than the fire dried fruit." Only two or three varieties are considered suitable for drying. Regarding the preserving industry, Josselyn remarks: "It is estimated by dealers that the annual export of tinned litchis from Canton is about 3000 boxes, or 192,000 pounds. Each box of preserved litchis contains 48 tins, weighing 1 catty each. Each tin contains about 28 litchis. There are five large dealers in Canton who make a business of preserving these litchis. In addition to the preserved litchis exported from Canton large quantities of the fresh fruit are shipped from the producing districts surrounding Canton to Hongkong and are there preserved in tin."
An analysis of the fresh fruit, made in Hawaii by Alice R. Thompson, shows it to contain : Total solids 20.92 percent, ash 0.54, acids 1.16, protein 1.15, and total sugars 15.3.