Lychee

24.05.17

Lychee (Litchi chinensis) is a sweet and tangy edible fruit with semi-translucent flesh encased in a red skin. The fruit is oval to round in shape and about 3cm in diameter.

The lychee tree is native to southern China, northern Vietnam and Myanmar and has been grown in Australia since the 1970s. The Australian lychee industry is relatively new and small by Australian agricultural standards.

Overview

Australian lychee exports are primarily to countries in South East Asia, including Hong Kong and Singapore. Lychees are also exported to the United Arab Emirates, the Pacific Islands and Canada.

Lychee production is spread along the east coast of Australia from Coffs Harbour in northern NSW to Cooktown in far north Queensland; however the industry is concentrated around the Sunshine Coast, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Ingham, Tully and the Atherton Tablelands.

Lychee is considered difficult to grow as it requires frost-free conditions, and does not produce a substantial crop until 6–8 years after planting. The productive life of a tree is considered to be about 15 years.

Lychee fruit has a short shelf life as it degrades quickly after harvest. Lychees are also canned whole or made into a range of jellies, jams, preserves and lychee tea.

The Australian Lychee Growers’ Association is the peak national body for the industry.

Facts and figures

  • Lychees are grown from Coffs Harbour in New South Wales to Cooktown in far north Queensland
  • Lychee is considered difficult to grow
  • The right post-harvest handling and cooling infrastructure is critical, as lychee fruit degrades quickly
  • A lychee tree does not produce a substantial crop until 6–8 years after planting, and the productive life of the tree is about 15 years

Production status

More than 90% of Australian lychee production occurs in Queensland, in tropical and subtropical regions. More data relating to lychee production is available in the AgriFutures Australia Report Emerging animal and plant industries: Their value to Australia.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Lychees are eaten as a fresh fruit.
They can also be canned whole or made into a range of jellies, jams, preserves and tea.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Lychees are grown from Coffs Harbour in northern New South Wales to Cooktown in far north Queensland. More than 90% of production occurs in Queensland, concentrated around the Sunshine Coast, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Ingham, Tully and the Atherton Tablelands. Lychees are also grown in the northern regions of the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Soil type

Lychees grow best on fertile, well-drained soils, with a minimum depth of one metre of well-drained topsoil and a soil pH(water) of 5.5–6.0. They are prone to waterlogging so heavy clay soils should be avoided when selecting an orchard site.

Climate

Overall, lychees require a subtropical to tropical climate. Lychees require cool winter conditions during flower initiation (June to September) and warm, humid conditions during fruit growth (September to February).

During flowering, average daily temperatures should not exceed 20°C. It is accepted that locations with a mean minimum temperature of 10°C between July and September will provide several weeks of temperatures suitable for flower initiation.

While lychees are grown in high rainfall regions, irrigation is essential in most areas to produce regular crops.

A frost-free site is recommended. Mature orchards will tolerate light frosts but temperatures below -2°C will kill young trees.

Lychees are highly susceptible to wind damage, so planted windbreaks are required in most situations. Mature trees can be twisted out of the ground in strong wind and some varieties have brittle limbs that break easily.

Varieties

There are more than 40 varieties of lychee growing in Australia. However, according to the Australian Lychee Growers Association, the industry is largely based on the following seven varieties:

  •  Bosworth No 3 (Kwai May Pink)
  • Tai So
  • Fei Zi Xiao
  • Souey Tung
  • Kaimana
  • Salathiel
  • Wai Chee.

For more specific information about these varieties, including their characteristics, growing seasons and availability refer to the Australian Lychee Growers Association website.

The Australian lychee industry is currently focussed on hybridising and trialling new varieties with the aim to further extend the production season and provide superior lychee varieties.

Planting and crop management

Lychees are normally grown in rows in plantations (orchards), with the  rows running with the direction and slope of the land. This helps to minimise soil erosion, provide adequate drainage and allow efficient machinery access through the trees.

Lychee plantings generally range from 100 to 300 trees per hectare, depending on variety. Upright or low vigour varieties like Kwai May Pink, Salathiel and Wai Chee can be planted on a 6m x 6m grid (equivalent to 280 trees per hectare), while recommended spacings for spreading varieties such as Fay Zee Siu and Souey Tung is 12 x 6m (equivalent to 140 trees per hectare).

Windbreaks are recommended if the lychees will be grown in a windy location as strong winds can seriously affect tree growth and production.

A soil analysis (including soil pH) before planting is recommended to identify any nutrient deficiencies. Some soils will need an application of lime, phosphorus, nitrogen and some organic matter prior to planting.

Irrigation is essential in most areas to produce regular crops, with 2–8ML/ha necessary depending on the climate. Lychees can be damaged by salty water, so check water quality before planting.

Weeds, pests, and diseases

The most important insect pest of lychee orchards is the Queensland fruit fly (Bactrocera tryoni), which can destroy fruit and impact market access. The National Fruit Fly Strategy has developed a website that includes seasonal advice and fruit fly control strategies. Other insect pests include erinose mite, macadamia nut borer and fruit spotting bug.

Other pests include birds and fruit bats, so it is recommended that trees are covered with nets, particularly when fruit is forming.

The Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry provides a list of pests and diseases that may affect lychees. Plant Health Australia also provides information on potential pests and diseases of lychees.

Infrastructure Requirements

The Queensland Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries advise that essential equipment for lychee production includes:

  • tractor
  • irrigation system
  • spray equipment with separate spray units for pesticides and herbicides
  • slasher or mower
  • trailer and farm vehicle
  • farm shed
  • harvesting equipment (ladders, secateurs, bins)
  • forced-air cool room
  • sorting/grading and packing equipment (scales)
  • bird and flying fox control system (individual row or whole orchard netting)
  • net applicator and retriever
  • pruning equipment — air or pneumatic secateurs, a reciprocal pruner or lead guard.

Some of the site preparation and maintenance operations, e.g. cultivation, may be done by contractors or with hired equipment, reducing the need for capital outlay for specific machinery. In some instances, contractors may also supply bins and bags for harvesting. Cool rooms can also be hired but due to the size of portable cool rooms, this would suit mostly small growers.

The Queensland Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries suggests two people should be able to manage 2,000 mature trees during the year, with potentially an additional 8–10 staff for 6–10 weeks to assist with harvesting and packing. Specialist contractors would normally undertake mechanical pruning after harvest.

Harvesting & Processing

Lychees must be fully ripe when harvested, as they will not sweeten further after picking. In general, the fruit will fill out and the skin colour will change to a deeper red when ready for harvest, although this does vary between varieties. For example, in some varieties, the skin becomes smooth losing its spikes when it’s ripe.

The most reliable indicator of maturity is the sweetness of the flesh. A taste test will determine if the fruit is ready for harvest. Sweet flesh without too much acidity is desirable for the market.

Lychees are harvested by hand, and this can be labour intensive. Accessing short term labour at the peak harvest time may be difficult in some locations and some thought should be given to this if considering lychee production.

Lychees must be cooled after harvest to retain skin colour, prevent disease and ensure a long shelf life. Dehydration can cause skin to go brown within 12–24 hours of exposure to dry air. Therefore maintaining a ‘cool and moist’ chain from harvest onwards is required to keep fruit in good condition. This includes covering harvested fruit with wet bags and refrigerating to 5°C after packing.

The industry continues to invest in post-harvest solutions to prolong shelf life of lychees. In 2010–11 Horticulture Australia Ltd declared a major breakthrough to improve lychee quality at retail level with the development of retail-ready packaging. Based on a similar concept used for Medjool dates, the carton includes a transparent fold-down lid that prevents the fruit from drying out while on display.

Markets & Marketing

Most lychees are consigned to the major wholesale markets in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. Individual growers can sell their own fruit, or join a marketing group or cooperative to coordinate sales. Many growers also sell fruit at their farm gate or at local markets.

The Australian lychee industry is unique in having the longest production season in the world — mid-November to mid-March. This gives the Australian industry a potential export advantage by being able to offer a longer supply of fresh product. However, the short shelf life of fruit and the high costs of airfreight are the major constraints to export development.

Lychee exports reached a peak of 1907 tonnes in 2006–07 with markets mainly in China (via Hong Kong), Singapore and Europe. However, growing domestic demand, market access issues with China (via Hong Kong) and the strengthening of the Australian dollar have contributed to a decline in exports. More production and export data can be found in Emerging animal and plant industries: Their value to Australia.

Horticulture Australia Ltd developed an Lychee Industry Export Market Development Strategy 2023 to assess and promote export market opportunities for Australian lychees.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

Like all tree crops, the biggest commercial risk for new entrants to the industry is the length of time between planting and the first harvest (for lychees approximately 6–8 years). Add to this that many exotic tropical fruit trees require significant upfront investment (for example, irrigation and windbreak infrastructure), intensive management and a significant investment of time and energy, a return on investment may take even longer to achieve.

Lychees are considered a crop that requires management by someone experienced in horticultural production due to complexities around tree nutrition, irrigation scheduling and post-harvest storage and handling.

Risks associated with growing exotic tropical fruits are different for each market but may include:

  • unpredictable weather conditions affecting yield, meaning inconsistent cropping from year to year
  • crop losses from birds or flying foxes that may require expensive solutions
  • the availability and cost of labour, as exotic tropical fruits are harvested by hand
  • the short amount of time to transport fruit to market before it starts to deteriorate
  • the challenges of understanding the marketing of exotic tropical fruits with limited information available.

The most challenging part of managing an orchard is organising harvest labour. Lychees have a concentrated harvest period in which large quantities of fruit must be picked and graded in a short time. Lychee harvest often coincides with the wet season and the Christmas/New Year period, which can further complicate harvesting, labour and transport.

Regulatory considerations

The standard regulatory considerations that apply to all Australian farms, including laws applying to chemical use and management, occupational health and safety and transport (including machinery movements and the loading/unloading of harvested product), apply to lychee operations.

In addition there are a number of regulatory considerations specific to horticultural operations.

Before buying new land to plant orchards, a thorough investigation of the land’s suitability for a horticultural enterprise and its cropping or land use history, should be undertaken. This may include identifying a history of chemical contamination (and residue levels) as some export licences may be withheld on products grown on land where chemical residues exist. Potential disease risks should also be investigated. Some disease pathogens can survive in the soil for many years, so information about previous disease outbreaks will assist determining which trees are suitable for planting. This information can generally be obtained from the relevant state planning authority. Growers will also be responsible for regularly inspecting their orchards for notifiable pests and diseases and reporting any incidence to the relevant state agriculture department.

When planting new orchards and establishing additional on-farm infrastructure or access roads, liaison with the state government agencies responsible for planning, native vegetation laws and water licences will be necessary. Some land use applications will also need to be considered by the relevant local government authority.

Horticulture and food production businesses have strict requirements in relation to record keeping, registrations, and accreditations as well associated cost for e.g. quality assurance, food safety, safe use of chemicals, environmental performance and intellectual property. Websites like Freshcare may provide a starting point for understanding these requirements.

Publications

Publications/information

Emerging animal and plant industries: Their value to Australia RIRDC report (2014)

Lychee Industry Export Market Development Strategy 2023 Horticulture Innovation Australia Summary

Lychee: Strategic Investment Plan 2017-2021 Horticulture Innovation Australia

Is lychee growing for you? Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (2012)

Frequently asked questions about lychees, longans and rambutans Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Other resources

Plant Health Australia

Queensland Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Image Gallery

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Unripe lychees on a tree

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Ripe lychees after harvest

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Lychees ripening on the tree

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Peeled lychees