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Exotic Lychees Safeguarded in ARS Botanical Library

By Marcia Wood
May 17, 2004

Crack the thin peel of a tropical lychee and this sweet, fragrant fruit is ready to eat. Or, enjoy lychee's juicy, nearly translucent flesh in a compote of other exotic tropical fruits like papaya or kiwi.

A collection of lychee trees from around the world is in the care of Agricultural Research Service scientists based at Hilo, Hawaii. This living botanical library preserves most of the best-known commercial lychee types, and the lesser-known varieties as well. In all, it's among the best assemblages of lychee outside of China and Southeast Asia.

Included in this tropical treasure trove are many kinds of lychees that are grown in Hawaii. These varieties boast a 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. The seed looks like--and is nicknamed--a "chicken tongue."

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 all of today's commercial lychees.

Some of the specimens were donated by the University of Hawaii. Others were collected by Francis T.P. Zee, research leader at ARS' Pacific Basin Tropical Plant Genetic Resource Unit at Hilo, and a university colleague, Philip Ito, on expeditions to China, Thailand and Taiwan. Still others were provided through an exchange of specimens with scientists in those countries.

The Hilo repository is part of a nationwide network of plant collections managed by ARS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency. An article in ARS' monthly magazine, Agricultural Research, tells more.