No, strawberries don’t grow on trees.
And no, oddly-shaped golf balls don’t grow on trees either.
This is a fruit—and probably an unfamiliar one to most my readers. It’s a Lychee (pronounced “Lie-Chee” in Australia rather than “Lee-Chee” as in the United States). This fruit will be both on my mind and in my hands for the next month during the harvest season.
The lychee is a tropical to subtropical fruit native to southern China. Records in China indicate that the fruit has been cultivated as far back as 2000 BC. The fruit was a favourite delicacy in some Imperial Courts, and, in the case of one 1st century emperor, a special ‘pony express’ was set up at great cost to transport the fresh fruit to the court from the south. It is thus fitting that the farm I now work is called Emperor’s Choice Lychees.
With its sub-tropical climate, year-round growing season, bountiful sunshine, and ample rainfall, the lychee is fit to grow in Queensland, Australia as well. The fruit is grown on trees—or more properly, shrubby trees that reach about 20 feet tall. In January, the fruit becomes ready for harvest, turning pinkish-red in an attractive contrast to the glossy dark-green foliage. The plentiful fruit is borne on clustered branch-tips known as panicles. During lychee harvest, workers will either pick the fruit off the tree singly, or cut the panicles directly of the tree. The lychee tree branches are also dense and flexible enough to support a 16-foot bow ladder propped directly on the branches to reach the highest fruit.
A hedge-row of trees in the lychee orchard
As a native and popular Chinese fruit, it makes sense that the farm I work for exports their entire crop to China. Though I’ve seen lychees for sale in Australian supermarkets, the fruit hasn’t seemed to have broken into mainstream US grocery stores yet. In the States, the most reliable place to find the fruit are the Chinatown markets. In fact, New York City’s Chinatown was the source of my first introduction to lychees. Nearly five years ago, when was I interning for a summer in suburban New York, one of my fellow interns (partly of Chinese descent) would bring back curious Chinese fruit from Chinatown for the other interns to sample. One time the fruit to try was lychees. From my first mouthful of the juicy sweet fruit, I was hooked. Of course I would jump at the opportunity to harvest lychees for a season when the possibility would come up in Australia.
Me happily harvesting some lychees
Lychees imported into the States from overseas markets do taste good—but they pale in comparison to the taste of a lychee plucked off the branch only minutes beforehand. The fruit itself comes pre-packaged in its own tough, pinkish-red inedible skin, which is covered in coarse bumps and rough to the touch (also making for tender hands for the harvester). Pierce through the protective skin with a fingernail and peel away the top half of the skin to reveal the gelatinous, translucent white-hued fruit inside (and make sure you don’t eat any of the skin. If you do accidentally, then you’ll get a fleeting taste of potpourri before your mouth becomes astringently bitter). With the top half of the skin peeled away, squeeze the bottom of the fruit to pop the entire morsel into your mouth. This is quite easy to do, as the fruit itself is not attached to the skin except for at the base of the seed. Now, enjoy your lychee. You’ll find the fruit to be sugary-sweet and juicy, with a taste that can be best described as a natural version of artificial ‘blue-raspberry’ flavour. Using your tongue, work the lychee around your mouth to separate the flesh from the glossy brown seed the size and shape of an almond. Spit the seed out and admire its sheen. Now it’s time to enjoy your next lychee!
Next time you’re in the supermarket, try and look for the exotic little fruit called a lychee. And if you can’t find it, a trip to the nearest Chinatown street market may be in order.