By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Lychees are attractive trees that may grow 40 feet (12 meters) tall and have glossy leaves and a nicely arched canopy. Added to these attributes are the delicious fruits. Starting new lychee trees can be done any number of ways, but some have better success than others and take less time. There are a few rules to follow for best chance of success, however. Read on for information on how to propagate lychee trees.
Lychees are common fruits in Asian cuisine. They are grown in subtropical to tropical regions of the world and thrive in Mediterranean climates. Methods of lychee propagation are grafting, air layering or by cuttings. You could also grow them from seed, but trees can take more than 10 years to bear and fruit may not be true to the parent.
The quickest and most popular method used by commercial and home growers is air layering, with an 80 percent chance of success. We’ll go over the highlights of these methods of lychee plant propagation so you can see which one works best for you.
Harvest seeds from fresh, ripe fruits immediately. Seed will only be viable for 4 days or less, so it is best to plant as soon as seed has been separated from pulp.
High humidity is necessary for germination. Soak seed in de-mineralized water for one day prior to planting for best chance of success. Select the largest seeds, which have a higher percentage of germination.
Start in 2-inch pots with well-rotted compost that has been thoroughly moistened. Keep medium damp and place containers where temperatures are at least 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 C.). Container grow seedlings for one year before planting out.
The fruiting time is variable dependent upon cultivar. This method of propagating lychee can take 10 years while some species take up to 25 years and quality will be unknown.
Starting lychee trees from cuttings requires careful attention to humidity, temperature control and the type of wood selected. Spring cuttings of semi-softwood are best for propagating lychee. There has been an 80 percent chance of rooting when given precise care.
Take cuttings with several growth nodes attached and remove the basal leaves. Dip cuttings into rooting hormone and insert carefully into a premade hole in moistened sand. Gently push sand around cutting and use a stake if necessary to keep the cutting upright.
Place containers in partial shade and keep moist. Cuttings often root within 4 months.
The most successful of the methods of lychee propagation is through air layering. Select a healthy branch and girdle it where it attaches to the parent all the way into the cambium. This forces rooting. Optimal branches are no more than 5/8 inch (15 mm.) in diameter.
Pack the girdled area with moistened peat moss and wrap with plastic wrap. In approximately 6 weeks, this method of lychee plant propagation should result in roots. Then the layer can be detached from the parent and potted up separately to fully form a root mass.
New trees should be kept in shade for 6 weeks before planting outdoors. Air layering results in quicker fruiting and has less maintenance during the process than the other methods of lychee propagation.
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Read more about Lychee Tree
Lychee (Litchi chinensis), sometimes written as litchi or li-chi, is a subtropical tree native to China, enjoyed for its juicy edible fruits and handsome appearance. Lychee only fruits reliably in Sunset's Climate Zones 20 through 24, H1 and H2, but may survive in slightly cooler areas as long as it is grown in a frost-free, protected site. Lychee is rarely propagated by seed, as seeds lose viability quickly under dry conditions and seedlings grow slowly and do not reliably produce quality fruit. Successful grafting is also difficult to accomplish. The most common and easiest way to propagate lychee is by air-layering, encouraging the formation of roots on a portion of a branch this process is also known as marcotting.
Soak a few handfuls of sphagnum peat moss for each layer site in warm water for at least an hour. Wear latex or rubber gloves when handling the moss, if desired, as it may irritate skin.
Select a suitable branch or branches for the air layering procedure. Choose branches of the parent between 1/2 and 3/4 inches in diameter larger branches can be used if it will not seriously defoliate the parent lychee. If possible, utilize branches located around the periphery of the tree. Choose a spot on each branch just below a node, or point of leaf attachment.
Remove leaves and twigs from 4 inches below and above the chosen site, typically within a foot or two of the branch tip.
Cut and peel off a ring of bark 1 to 1 1/2 inches wide using a sharp knife, and scrape the thin, white cambium layer off of the exposed wood.
Brush or dust a small amount of rooting hormone onto the exposed wood surfaces.
Wrap a thick layer of damp but not wet moss around the wounded section of branch, creating an oblong mass about 4 inches thick and 6 inches long. Keep the moss in place by wrapping a twine around it.
Wrap polyethylene film or plastic sheeting around the moist moss. Secure the film to the branch with electrical tape or florist's ties. Ensure that the seal is secure enough that no moisture will escape or penetrate the moss and make sure no moss extends beyond the film or tape.
Prepare the transplant site in the ground or a container. Lychee prefers a well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Work amendments into an in-ground site to improve soil structure and lower pH or select a suitable potting soil.
Cut the new, rooted plant off of the parent tree just below the root mass using a sharp knife. Do this once roots are visible through the film, typically about six weeks after wounding the branch.
Remove the polyethylene film and tape carefully. Avoid damaging the moss ball or roots.
Plant the young lychee in a nursery container or in the ground. Keep the moss ball intact. Stake the plant, if necessary, to keep it upright. Water the plant thoroughly.
Protect young trees from freezing temperatures and wind. If possible, keep the young lychee in light shade until new shoots emerge, then gradually reduce shade.
Most lychee trees are reproduced by air-laying. A branch with a diameter or 5/8 to 3/4 inch is girdled, removing the bark and exposing the inner wood. A layer of damp sphagnum moss is applied over the exposed wood and covered with plastic. In two to three months the roots become visible. The branch is carefully removed from the tree and planted in a grower's pot or a sheltered location in the garden. Once the new tree is established, it will begin producing fruit in three to five years.
While most trees are reproduced by air-layering, some growers have been successful in rooting softwood cuttings. The cuttings are taken in the spring and planted in an acidic planting mix. With constant misting to keep the humidity high and weekly feedings of a balanced 10-10-10 liquid fertilizer, growers report an 80 percent success rate. Cuttings, however, may take four months or more before developing roots and require a protected environment, like a greenhouse, for 18 months before planting outdoors. Like air-layered trees, cuttings begin producing fruits in three to five years.