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The Shell Game: Juicy Summer Lychees Unpeeled

We take a dive into the history and varieties of the sweet and juicy fruits that brighten our summer.

By Wilson Fok
July 1, 2021

While tropical fruits such as pineapples and mangoes dominate the celebrated summer harvests, Chinese fruits always have a place in the locals’ hearts. Among them are lychees, a flame-skinned fruit that ripen during the climatic height of summer. Celebrated for its floral aroma and sweet juices, not all lychees are created equal, as fresh crop is harvested within a limited two-month period from the end of May to late July. A traditional Chinese saying has it right: Lychees ripen at times when cicadas sing. The early summer months highlight the appearance of the seasonal insects, coincidentally overlapping with the same months the summer fruits are at their best.

Predominantly grown in Southern China, particularly in the Guangdong province, lychees are also a popular crop in Southeast and equatorial countries where the climate features high temperatures with optimal humidity and rainfall. The tropical fruit benefits from slightly acidic soil with rich mineral composition to help its growth and help produce the best crop available from early to midsummer each year. Lychees’ legendary status heightened at Tang Dynasty, where the infamous concubine Yang Yuhuan fell in love with the sweet honeyed fruits and demanded the fresh crop to be harvested and transported by delivery for her enjoyment. Despite a lengthy delivery period, lychees eventually reached the Tang palace where Yang sampled with satisfaction.


There are many varieties of lychees that hit the market throughout the summer. Cultivated and nurtured throughout the Guangdong province, the Feizi Xiao (smile of a concubine, the variety loved by the Tang Dynasty concubine) is a notable variety where the scaly shell of the lychee fruits takes on patches of light green with red spots on its shell. The red-green shells do not indicate ripeness, though. The flesh of the ripe fruit bears the texture of a soft pate de fruit, or fruit jelly. The Feizi Xiao varieties tend to ripen early in season, available between May and June each year.

One notable lychee pedigree named GuaLu (The Green Drop) is a purebred lychee grown in Guangdong. Known for a prominent ring of green around its red shell, the GuaLu takes on a different texture altogether, boasting an intense floral aroma and crisp, almost pear-like texture. The variety is near-extinct with only a single lychee tree remaining in the town of Zengcheng in Guangdong province, and fruits do not frequent every year, making the crop even more rare.


Guiwei | Photo: Wilson Fok

Nuomi Ci | Photo: Wilson Fok

Guiwei (The Taste of Osmanthus) and Nuomi Ci (mochi) are two of the most revered and widely-available lychee varieties at the market. The Guiwei—smaller fruits with spiny red shells, are considerably harder to peel. The juicy flesh is firmer and has a decidedly fragrant aroma that reminds one of fresh osmanthus flower, hence the name. The Nuomi Ci is the giant among lychee varieties. Arguably the most popular variety in the family, the fruit is round with a smoother and thinner red shell, which requires careful peeling to avoid piercing the fruit. The Nuomi Ci, despite its size up to a golf ball, is best known for its juicy flesh with a tiny pit the shape and size of a single clove.

The fruit contains an abundance of natural sugar and water, thanks to its celebrated juicy flesh. However, traditional Chinese medicine beliefs suggest that lychees bear a high level of heat which can lead to fever and sore throat if consumed abundantly. Enjoy these fruits while they last, and responsibly.