Entomologist Peter Follett
inspects a panicle of ripening
lychee fruit for insect damage.
Follett worked with Glenn McHam of MMG Manufacturing, Inc., a Fresno,
California, commercial equipment fabricator; John White, a Fresno-based
designer of agricultural equipment; and Mike Strong, owner of Kahili
Farms, Kilauea, Hawaii, one of the state's premier growers and packers
of tropical fruit. Kahili Farms, where Follett is fine-tuning and demonstrating
a commercial prototype of the dual-tub process, is in the final stages
of obtaining federal approval for the unit.
Fusing the Ancient With the Modern
Quirks in timing of lychee and longan flowering and, therefore, fruiting
lead to either boom or bust harvests. Explains ARS horticulturist Tracie
Matsumoto, "Growers are left with too much fruit one year and too
little the next. Ideally, lychee and longan crop yields would be even
and predictable, like apple harvests."
In her Hilo laboratory, Matsumoto is currently fusing ancient knowledge
of Chinese firecracker ingredients with contemporary discoveries from
a plant called thale cress, Arabidopsis thaliana.
Chinese firecrackers, used for more than 500 years in religious celebrations
and other events, enter the picture through a fascinating phenomenon
noted in Taiwan.
Lychee, Litchi chinensis, was
first introduced into Hawaii
100 years ago but has been
cultivated in China for nearly
4,000 years. Peeled before
eaten, the fruit is whitish
colored, as seen on the right.
Scientists find thale cress to be a perfect subject for studies of
the structure and function of plant genes. That's because thale cress
has very few genes, making the task significantly less complex. While
examining the plant, researchers at several labs found that one of its
genes, flc, represses flowering. Yet by some unknown mechanism,
other thale cress genes are able to overcome flc to induce the
plant to bloom.
"We want to see whether a repressor gene, like flc in thale
cress, exists in crops such as lychee or longan," explains Matusmoto.
"And we want to find out whether a firecracker chemical somehow
interacts with the repressor gene or other genes to overcome the antiflowering
effect. Once we know that, we might be able to take advantage of this
phenomenon by using a less-explosive version of the fireworks chemical
to cue flowering.
"The lychee and longan industry in Hawaii is still quite small,
with just a few farms and some productive backyard trees," she
says. "But growers are planting more and more trees. We want to
help these farmers succeed."
Horticulturist Tracie Matsumoto
collects a sample from a longan
tree to isolate the genes
involved in flowering.
Savvy Scientists Share Lychee Expertise
In the meantime, growers do have some tactics at their disposal to
help them sidestep the problem of unpredictable harvests. "Growing
Lychee in Hawaii," a popular leaflet published by the University
of Hawaii in 1999, presents guidelines on everything from how to select
the best-performing trees to how to properly prune, fertilize, and irrigate
Francis Zee, horticulturist and curator of ARS's tropical fruit and
nut collection at Hilo, developed some of these techniques in experiments
with lychee trees planted near his laboratory and at an orchard in Kona,
some 120 miles away. Then he teamed with other specialists in Hawaii
to summarize everyone's recommendations and present them in the text,
tables, and diagrams that make up the leaflet. "From running a
lychee repository for more than a decade, we've learned a lot of secrets
about how to grow this crop," says Zee.
World's Lychees Safeguarded
The repository that Zee manages serves as a botanical library. Living
examples of lychee, longan, and about a dozen other tropical crops are
preserved for the future and are available today for use by scientists,
growers, and farm advisors. This treasury is part of the nationwide
network of ARS-managed plant collections.
"The lychee and longan collections here at Hilo are among the
best outside of China and southeast Asia," says Zee. "Some
lychees were brought from southern China in the 1940s by Dr. George
Groff, and were donated to us by the University of Hawaii, where Groff
was a professor.
"Dr. Philip Ito and I obtained more recent acquisitions, added
in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Before he retired from the
university, we collected in Thailand, China, and Taiwan. We also received
additional specimens by exchanging material with scientists of those
countries," Zee adds.
In 2002, Zee made a preliminary exploration of a wild lychee forest
on China's Hainan Island, southwest of Hong Kong in the Gulf of Tonkin.
He established contacts with some of China's leading horticulturists
and is making plans to return.
The ARS repository at Hilo houses many kinds of lychee that are grown
in Hawaii. These boast a delightful range of shapes, colors, and sizes.
Hak Ip, for example, has thin, smooth, dull-red skin; round- to heart-shaped
fruit; and a single, large seed inside. Chen's Purple has bright, purplish-red
skin and elliptical fruit. No Mai Tsz, the world's most sought-after
lychee because of its exceptional flavor, often has only a single, shriveled
seed inside, nicknamed a "chicken tongue" for its odd appearance.
The collection also includes India's Bengal; Kwai May Pink, developed
in Australia; and Groff and Kaimana, selected from other candidate lychee
trees for their adaptability to Hawaii's soils and climates. All are
descendants of China's Litchi chinensis, the source of every
domesticated lychee on the planet.
Luscious Longan from Around the Globe
The longan collection at Hilo is composed of varieties from China,
where it is native, and from other locales. "We have Tiger Eye
and Ta u Yu from China; Si Chompoo and Biew Kiew from Thailand; and
Kohala from Hawaii," Zee explains.
"The Thai specimens are more suitable for Hawaii, and are more
consistently productive here, than those from China, probably because
Thailand's climate is more nearly like that of Hawaii. Our collection
includes Hawaii's own, unique longan variety, Egami, selected by Dr.
Ito. We also have the malesianus subspecies, which bears a soft,
soapy-tasting fruit. It has bumpy, light-mustard-yellow skin instead
of the smooth, dark-mustard-brown peel of its relative, Dimocarpus
longanthe domesticated fruit."
Zee is collaborating with a team led by ARS plant physiologist Paul
Moore at Aiea, Hawaii, to probe the genetic makeup of lychee and longan.
The intent? To verify work done in 1995 by the repository staff to sort
out exactly who's who among these fruit varieties. That early work untangled
some of the confusion that, understandably, resulted when traditional
names of lychee and longan varieties were translated from the original
Chinese into English. Now, Moore's team is using newer, more precise
DNA-analysis techniques that, earlier, weren't as available to the repository
"Collecting, preserving, and classifying lychee and longan trees
is especially critical," Zee emphasizes. "It's urgent that
this happen before old lychee and longan forests in Asia are destroyed
for development or before older varieties are displacedin commercial
grovesby new ones.
"With the help of our collaborators here and overseas, we can
continue to expand the collection and contribute to the knowledge about
these fruit species. That way, we can improve the care of these wonderful
gifts that the world has inherited from China."By Marcia
Wood, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Plant, Microbial, and Insect Genetic Resources,
Genomics, and Genetic Improvement, an ARS National Program (#301) described
on the World Wide Web at www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
To reach the scientists named in this article, contact Marcia
Wood, USDA-ARS Information
Staff, 5601 Sunnyside Ave., Beltsville, MD 20705; phone (301) 504-1662,
fax (301) 504-1641.
"New Options for Lychee and Longan Fans and Farmers"
was published in the May
2004 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.