Native to the tropical and sub-tropical regions, the lychee has its origin in China’s Fujian and Guangdong provinces and currently is cultivated in several regions across the globe. The only member of the Litchi genus that belongs to the soapberry family, Sapindaceae, the fresh lychee fruit encloses a whitish, delicate pulp having a sweet and fragrant flavour and floral aroma. Usually, this fruit is consumed fresh, as its fragrant flavour disappears when it is processed for canning.
Lychee is a tall evergreen tree that often grows up to a height of anything between 10 meters and 28 meters (33 feet to 93 feet). This tree produces plump fruits that measure about 5 cm (2 inches) long and 4 cm (1.6 inches) in width. On the exterior, the fruit has a thin pinkish-red covering with a coarsely textured rind. The fruit’s cover is inedible, but it can be removed easily to bare a sweet flavoured, semi-transparent whitish flesh. Lychees are consumed in various different ways – in a variety of desserts. In China, this fruit is very popular. It is also liked by people all over Southeast Asia, in addition to various regions in South Asia and some parts of Southern Africa.
Lychee trees are cultivate in a number of Asian countries, including China, India, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. It is also grown extensively in Mexico, Australia and some regions in Southern Africa. China is the largest producer of lychee in the world, while India comes next.
The lychee has a very long history and records found in China reveal that it has been in cultivation since 2000 B.C. Initially, lychee was cultivated in some areas of southern China, Vietnam and Malaysia. Even to this day, lychee trees grow in the wild in the southern regions of China as well as on Hainan Island. There are numerous stories related to lychee’s popularity in the Chinese Imperial Court, where it was used in the form of a delicacy. A Polish Jesuit missionary named Michael Boym is credited with introducing lychee in the West. He was also the first person to describe the fruit.
It takes about anything between 80 days to 112 days for the lychee fruits to mature. However, much depends on the climate, cultivar as well as the place where the trees are grown. The shape of the lychee fruit differs – ranging from round to egg-shaped to heart-shaped. Although the skin of the fruit is thin, it is inedible. When immature, the skin is green and the color changes to red or pinkish-red when the fruits are ripe. The skin or cover of the fruit may be smooth or even covered with tiny sharp projections. If the fruit is kept aside after harvesting, its skin becomes dry and turns into dark brown.
The fleshy part of the fruit is edible and it is basically an aril that surrounds a solitary dark brown seed. The lychee seed is inedible and measures between 1 cm to 3.3 cm in length and 0.6 cm (0.39 to 1.30 inch) to 1.2 cm (0.24 to 0.47 inch) in width. A number of lychee cultivars produce copious amounts of fruits enclosing shrunken, aborted seeds, which are called “chicken tongue”. These fruits are usually more expensive as they contain more flesh.
Lychee is considered to be an unusual, but great fruit that offers an assortment of health benefits, which include perking up one’s immune system, improving digestion, lowering blood pressure, enhancing circulation, developing strong bones, protecting the skin, protecting the body against viral infections, augmenting the metabolic activities, facilitating weight loss and even preventing cancer.
In addition, lychee is useful in enhancing the energy levels of our body. It also improves one’s overall feeling of being hale and hearty. Lychee is loaded with a number of vitamins and roughly contains 40 percent additional vitamin C compared to an orange. At the same time, this fruit contains elevated levels of beta carotene, much higher compared to the amount present in carrots.
It is believed that lychee is also an excellent digestive and diuretic. This fruit encloses unsaturated fatty acids that facilitate the assimilation of beta carotene as well as other vitamins that dissolve in fats. Lychee is also effective in preventing blood clots, reducing risks of strokes and protects the cells from severe damage.
Lychee is also an excellent resource of carbohydrates as well as dietary fiber – both vital for the well-being of our body. Lychee contains rich amounts of B-complex vitamins, counting folate and niacin. These vitamins assist the body to metabolize carbohydrates, proteins and fats. In addition, this fruit contains high levels of potassium, which is a vital element of our body, especially the cell fluids and it aids in regulating the blood pressure and heart rate. Lychee also protects us from heart diseases as well as stroke.
Lychee is also effective in improving the tone of the skin and helps to eliminate facial spots or blemishes. This fruit is also useful improving the blood as well as restoring vitality. These attributes of lychee make the fruit beneficial for feeble and aged people. In Asia, particularly in China, people have been consuming lychee to get respite from pain and also in the form of a remedy for coughs and sore throats. This fruit improves digestion, facilitates the contracting the distended glands as well as improving one’s overall health and life span.
People who want to shed their extra pounds will find lychee extremely beneficial. As this fruit contains very less fat, consuming it on a regular basis is must for people who want to have a healthy body weight. Lychee encloses adequate copper, which helps to prevent thyroid disorders. At the same time, copper plays a vital role in producing a number of hormones, including thyroxine.
Like most other vegetables and fruits, lychees contain considerable quantities of dietary fiber that aids in adding bulk to one’s stool and, at the same time, improve the digestive health. The dietary fiber contained in this fruit facilitates smooth bowel movements via the digestive tract and also encourages peristaltic motion of the smooth muscles in the small intestine, thereby accelerating the speed at which the ingested foods pass through the part of the body. In addition, dietary fiber also promotes the production and secretion of gastric and digestive juices that help the body to take up the nutrients from foods more effectively. This, in turn, can help to lessen constipation as well as other gastrointestinal (GI) problems.
Perhaps, vitamin C is the most important nutrient contained by lychee fruit, as it contains over 100 percent of our daily recommended allowance of ascorbic acid in just a solitary serving. In other words, consuming reasonable amounts of lychee helps to provide a major boost to our immune system, as vitamin C is considered to be an important antioxidant compound and this works to promote the white blood cell activities. The white blood cells are the most important defensive line of the immune system of our body.
Lychee also contains proanthocyanidins and polyphenolic compounds that are known to be more potent compared to vitamin C in terms of counteracting free radicals as well as protecting our body from various ailments and afflictions. In fact, free radicals are derivatives of cellular metabolism and detrimental for our health, as they are of responsible for heart disease, premature aging, cognitive disorders, cancer and various other unwanted health conditions. Lychee is packed with the organic compounds mentioned above and, hence, consuming this fruit regularly, is an effectual defensive measure against various cancer forms.
Scientists have undertaken extensive studies of proanthocyanidins present in lychee. During these studies, they have found that the proanthocyanidins possess antiviral properties. Lychee contains a compound called litchitannin A2 which has been found to play a crucial role in preventing the outbreak or spread of viruses, such as coxsackie virus and herpes simplex virus.
Lychee is also loaded with potassium, which aids our body to preserve a fluid balance. On the other hand, lychee contains very less sodium and this also helps in maintaining the fluid balance in the body. Apart from being an essential part of our metabolic functions, fluid balance is also important in reducing hypertension. Potassium is known to be a vasodilator – in other words, this essential mineral helps to lessen blood vessel constriction, thereby playing a crucial role in reducing the burden on our cardiovascular system. Hence, people with propensity to developing cardiovascular diseases will find consumption of lychee extremely beneficial. It is important to note that the levels of potassium in dried lychee are three times more compared to that in the fresh fruit.
It has been found that the potent phenolic compound present in lychee offers several vital health benefits, counting improving circulation, anti-influenza actions, weight loss activity as well as shielding the skin from the damaging ultra-violet (UV) rays, when one directly comes in contact with sunlight. Similar to the ascorbic acid as well as various proanthocyanidins present in lychee, this phenolic compound has also shown to possess significant antioxidant attributes.
Lychee also encloses the essential mineral copper. It is present in significant amounts in lychee. While iron is generally related to the red blood cells (erythrocytes), copper is also an important constituent of red blood cell (RBC). Therefore, the presence of copper in lychee helps to perk up blood circulation and, at the same time, improves the supply of oxygen to the cells and different organs.
Habitat and cultivation
Currently, lychee is widely grown in different regions of China. In addition, this species is also cultivated in Brazil, Bangladesh, India, southern Japan, Pakistan and different areas of Southeast Asia. Very recently, this species is being cultivated in places like California, Florida, Texas, Jamaica, other parts of the Caribbean, Hawaii and the wetter regions on the eastern coast of Australia as well as some areas of South Africa. Although to a lesser degree, lychee is also cultivated in Israel and the states of San Luis Potosi and Sinaloa in Mexico.
Lychees need a warm climatic condition, ranging from tropical to sub-tropical. At the same time, the climate should be cool and frost-free or only negligible winter frosts with temperature not dropping under -4°C. It requires very hot summers, rainfall as well as good humidity. Lychees thrive best when grown in soils that have a proper drainage and are somewhat acidic and contain high amounts of organic substances. There are assortments of lychee cultivars, including varieties that bear fruits early as well as late in the season. While trees whose fruits mature early in the season grow well in warmer climates, trees bearing late maturing fruits are suited for cooler climates. Apart from their sweet flavoured fruits, lychee trees are also grown for ornamental purposes.
In Asian markets, lychees are generally sold as fresh fruits. In recent times, even supermarkets across the world have started selling lychees. If you store the fruit in a refrigerator, its red or pinkish-red rind changes to dark brown, but the taste remains unchanged. Apart from consuming the fruit fresh, lychees can also be canned and sold throughout the year. Some people store lychees by drying out the fruit along with its rind and this results in the shrinking and darkening of its flesh. Dried lychees are generally referred to as lychee nuts. However, they are not true nuts.
Lychee offers numerous health benefits, as the fruit is loaded with various nutrients. The health benefits of lychee are attributed to the different percentages of vitamin B6, vitamin C, folate, riboflavin, niacin, copper, magnesium, potassium, manganese and phosphorus contained by it. In addition to these vitamins and minerals, lychee is also rich in protein, dietary fiber and an excellent natural resource of polyphenolic compounds and proanthocyanidins.
Side effects and cautions
The lychees are also an excellent source of sugar and, hence, people with diabetes ought to be careful while consuming this fruit. Consuming too many lychees may lead to an imbalance in their blood sugar levels. In addition, lychees are also believed to be a “hot” food – in other words, at times this food may result in an imbalance in our body’s nutrient levels. Consuming too many lychees may cause the membranes to become irritated. In addition, it may lead to fever, bloody nose and/ or sore throat. Nevertheless, when consumed in normal amounts, this fruit does not pose any risk to one’s health.