For the Love of Lychees: An Interview with Lychee Growers Bill Mee and Krystal Folino

by Celeste Heiter, Sep 2, 2003 | Destinations: China / Guangzhou
Bill Mee and Krystal Folino in their Ft. Lauderdale, Florida Lychee Grove.

Bill Mee and Krystal Folino in their Ft. Lauderdale, Florida Lychee Grove.

Bill Mee and Krystal Folino in their Ft. Lauderdale, Florida Lychee Grove.

When early humans first discovered the perfumed pleasures of the lychee fruit more than 4000 years ago, little did they know that, halfway around the globe, their descendents would someday be able to make a whole box of them appear as if by magic with the click of a mouse. Thanks to lychee growers and Internet entrepreneurs Bill Mee and Krystal Folino of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, that fantasy is now a reality.

Bill and Krystal are the proprietors of a three-acre grove of lychee and other rare tropical fruits on the Atlantic coast of southern Florida. Bill started the grove himself in 1989, on a carefully selected plot of land in West Broward County, with stock borrowed from existing lychee trees thriving within the local ecosystem.

"I have been a grower of lychees for 14 years," says Bill Mee. "My wife, Krystal Folino, created the website so that we could reach people in a wider area than just my local channels. There is a large demand for lychees in the U.S. and very little supply." Their website, Lychees Online now offers the freshest and most succulent of lychee fruit, hand-picked at the peak of ripeness and shipped the same day it is picked.

What is a Lychee?

The lychee is a rare tropical tree that bears a brilliant red-skinned fruit with extraordinarily sweet, fragrant, juicy, translucent flesh. The lychee originated in the low elevations of Southern China in the provinces of Kwangtung and Fukien, where there are still villages in today with lychee trees that are over 1000 years old! Lychee farming spread from its native China to neighboring areas of southeastern Asia and offshore islands, the West Indies, Madagascar, then to France and England. In the late 1800's the Lychee spread from Hawaii to Florida, and was conveyed from Florida to California. However, successful planting of the Lychee tree in the U.S. did not occur until the early 1900's.

Known by its botanical name Litchi chinensis, of the family Sapindaceae or Soapberry, the lychee fruit is variously called lychee nut, litchi, litchee, lichee, lichi , laichi, and leechee. The most popular varieties grown in South Florida are the Brewster, the Hak Ip, and the Mauritius. There are currently about 33 varieties growing in the U.S., and lychee trees have now spread to most tropical areas of the world. The predominant commercial lychee varieties grown in South Florida are the Brewster and Mauritius. While there are many different varieties of the lychee fruit, most of the more unusual varieties are relegated to private collections and backyard gardens.

Lychee Varieties

The most common and popular commercial lychee variety in South Florida is the Brewster. A Brewster fruit is sweet and juicy. At peak ripeness the Brewster is truly delicious and in taste tests against other varieties consistently outranks all of the others. The only complaint people have with the Brewster is that is tends to have a large seed. As Brewster fruit ripens the small raised bumps on the fruit surface gradually smooth out.

The second most common commercially produced lychee in South Florida is the Mauritius variety, named after the African island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar, where the seedling originated. Mauritius fruit typically ripens several weeks earlier than the Brewster and is easily distinguished from its counterpart by the pinkish green skin coloration characteristic of ripe fruit. The flavor of Mauritius fruit is distinctly different and spicier than the Brewster and is quite delicious. Another favorable characteristic of the Mauritius is the higher percentage of small seeds within a given batch of fruit, although the Mauritius lychee tends to be smaller than the Brewster. The sub-acid sweet aril of ripe Mauritius fruit is slightly tart and as the fruit ages on the tree the flesh becomes firmer and less juicy. Overripe Mauritius fruit develop a noticeable membrane around the flesh and the skin of the fruit frequently gets fungal discoloration.

The Hak Ip lychee, introduced into South Florida just prior to hurricane Andrew, has experienced widespread commercial plantings and is just now beginning to come into significant production. The Hak Ip is arguably the ideal lychee in that it embodies all of the desirable characteristics that growers and aficionados desire: large size, great flavor, a tiny seed and darker red coloration.

Regarding the Hak Ip variety, Bill says, "In our opinion the Hak Ip is not as sweet as the Brewster at peak ripeness; however that does not detract from the delicious flavor. The skin of the Hak Ip is thinner than the Brewster and it retains more bumpiness even at the end of the ripening process. It is easy to understand why growers raced to plant out groves of Hak ips after this variety became available. In nearly ten years our Hak Ip trees have not produced much in the way of fruit; however experience has demonstrated that it can take many years for a lychee tree to come into full production and several factors such as fertilization, soil pH, moisture and seasonal climate variations can influence the productivity of lychee trees."

"In our grove," he says, "we also have the Bengal, Ohia, Sweet Cliff, Sweetheart, Hanging Green, No Mai Tze, Kaimana, Kwai Mai Pink, Groff, Wai Chee, Yellow Red and Emperor varieties. Of these varieties the most interesting is the Emperor which produces an enormous unusual looking fruit of superior taste and they are a great variety for growing in containers. The only problem with the Emperor is that the tree is very slow growing and there are not commercial quantities available."

Pollination and The Growing Season

If the late fall Florida weather is dry and cool lychee trees will begin to flower in December (occasionally you might see some bloom in November) and continue to flower and set fruit through the month of March. Lychee trees are monoecious. This means that an individual tree produces both male and female flowers on the same tree; a situation that differs among varying types of tropical fruit trees. Certain tropical fruit trees produce perfect flowers with male and female sexual parts (guavas, passion fruits, atemoyas, sapodillas and citrus) while other types have trees of separate sexes (genips and date palms).

When Brewster's first begin to bloom they produce predominantly male flowers on a long panicle and as the season progresses female flowers mature and open (the ovary of the female flower is what eventually becomes the fruit). Unfortunately, a large bloom does not always translate into a bumper crop. This coupled with the fact that lychee trees often bear fruit inconsistently influences the value of the fruit. Identical trees given identical cultural conditions will display completely different fruiting characteristics. Lychee growers throughout world continue to research the factors that influence productivity and there still is not a definitive answer on how to guarantee a good crop.

According to Bill and Krystal, "The commonly accepted season for lychee fruit in South Florida is mid-May to mid-June. The Mauritius variety is the first to ripen and become available in mid-May and last until the first week or two of June. Typically, Brewsters start to become ripe during the month of June, and for the last several years the season has ended during the 4th of July weekend. After this point in time, the remaining fruits are sunburned and become food for the many birds passing through on their way to Flamingo Gardens, which is just down the street."

The Lychee Industry

Far too many growers sell partially ripe lychees in a rush to get their fruit to market. Growers with groves of hundreds or thousands of acres of ripening lychees need to be able to sell all of their lychees by the end of the season. These growers start selling the fruit as soon as the fruit becomes edible and create a false impression of the quality of the lychees during the beginning of May.

Many lychee growers try to sell their fruit early, before the insects and birds begin to damage the fruit. Birds, insects and other pests also prefer the riper lychee fruit. This damage to the ripe fruit can result in a 10-50% reduction in the growers' lychee crop. However, by flooding the early lychee market with inferior fruit, growers tarnish the public's perception of what fresh lychee fruit looks and tastes like.

Wildlife is always a problem around fruit groves and lychee fruit are enjoyed by a wide variety of native animals such as birds, squirrels, raccoons and in Australia bats. Squirrels are a big nuisance because they only eat a few small bites from each lychee. Then the squirrel then wastefully discards the whole rest of the fruit and moves on to the next one. Mauritius trees have branches that are significantly weaker than Brewsters and an attack by foraging raccoons can leave a mass of broken branches. High winds, such as hurricanes, can inflict considerable damage on Mauritius trees.

For the Love of Lychees

For all their expertise however, oddly enough neither Bill nor Krystal started out in the lychee business. Bill had a 15-year career as a developer of electronic medical instruments, and Krystal owned a family operated home inspection and repair service. They met through a mutual friend and neighbor.

Bill Mee was born in Austin, Texas, and grew up in Long Island and Connecticut. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and earned a Masters in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Miami. Upon graduation, Bill accepted a teaching position at Abadan Institute of Technology in Iran, where he taught computer science and technology for two years. Once back in Florida, Bill became a member of the Rare Fruit and Vegetable Council, and even served as its vice president for several years. It was at this time he began researching the agribusiness of tropical fruit orchards and settled on growing lychees as his species of focus. Today, he describes himself as "a Johnny Appleseed of Lychees," and spends nearly every waking moment "evangelizing lychees," as he puts it, in hopes of educating the public on the pleasures of lychees and encouraging more people to grow them.

Krystal Folino is a Ft. Lauderdale native, where she has always lived the life of an entrepreneur. The daughter of a real estate agent and a building contractor, Krystal began her career as the proprietor of a home inspection service for prospective home buyers, and later expanded her business into the related field of home repair and termite treatments. Keen to foray into the world of Internet commerce, Krystal began experimenting with various web-based businesses, and soon discovered how to apply her newfound skills and knowledge to the lychee grove.

Krystal says, "The website started as a test site for all of our Internet marketing. It was our hobby, which turned into a full time business." Krystal's brother Luke also works on the website and is the assistant manager of the grove.

Together, Bill and Krystal share a waterfront house in Ft. Lauderdale with a Sharpei dog named Inky. They have traveled all over the U.S., South America and Europe, and when time permits, they also enjoy hiking, movies, scuba diving, horseback riding, and mountain vacations. But their first love is growing lychees. When asked who they hang out with, they replied, "With other tropical fruit enthusiasts." And how do they spend their free time? "Mostly in the grove," says Bill.

Lychees Online

Bill and Krystal's website, Lychees Online is a web-based purveyor of several varieties of fresh lychee fruit, as well as a limited selection of other tropical varieties. All fruits are, hand picked and shipped the same day they are picked. During the harvest season, lychee fruit is available for about $5 to $6 U.S., with a minimum order of five pounds, plus an overnight or two-day shipping fee on each order.

In addition to fresh lychee and other tropical fruits, Bill and Krystal also sell live lychee trees, lychee starter kits, growing supplies, and books, as well as lychee products such as lychee tea, lychee honey, lychee gummys, and canned lychee.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lychees... And Then Some

The Lychees Online website is a trove of information on the fine points of lychee growing techniques, with comprehensive articles on planting lychee trees, root system and fruit development, grafting, air layering, organic methods, growing lychees in containers, and starting your own grove. Lychees Online also features tips for selecting lychees and where to buy them, nutritional information, and dozens of appetizing lychee recipes, including Lychee Martinis, Daiquiris and Margaritas, Gorgonzola Cheese & Lychee Dip, Brandied Lychee Soup, Lychee-Orange Salad, Lychee Vinaigrette, Red Slaw with Lychees, Lychee & Carambola Chicken Breasts, Seared Scallops with Lychee Salsa, Chocolate Covered Lychees, and Lychee Cheesecake Blossoms.

The Fresher the Better

Selecting a source for fresh lychees is tricky business. According to Bill and Krystal, "If you are lucky enough to live in an area with a lychee grove nearby, that is always the best place to get fresh, just-picked lychees. If you know someone with a lychee tree in their yard, the homeowner will usually sell you or maybe even give you some fruit."

"The Internet has a handful of websites advertising fresh seasonal lychee fruit. Most of these vendors are small growers like us who hand-care for their trees and fruit. Online lychee vendors usually ship the fruit to you within 24-48 hours. Contrary to what many lychee lovers think, the Internet is actually the best way to get the freshest lychee fruit aside from buying them from a local grower."

"Avoid buying any lychees from Mexico or other growers outside the United States. Other countries that produce lychees don't subject growers to the same tough agricultural regulations that U.S. growers face. You have no idea what kinds of chemicals these foreign growers use to control pests, kill weeds, and preserve the picked fruit."

"Specialty markets can sometimes be a good source of fresh lychees, especially in very small quantities where the shipping cost of ordering on the Internet doesn't make sense. Don't buy the fruit on display in the market, as it may have been sitting in the store for a few days. Specialty markets usually buy their lychee fruit either locally or on the Internet, so when the fruit arrives at the store it is still fresh. Find out when the store will be receiving their lychees and go to the specialty store that day to buy yours. If the specialty store can't tell you when they will be getting fresh lychees, try to get them to call you when they do. You can even try to place a special order with the market if you can't get your fresh lychees on the Internet."

"The worst place to get fresh lychees is at the local grocery store. The fruit at the grocery store may already be a week old. The lychee fruit has usually spent a few days finding it's way from the grower to the fruit packer to the grocery store's local distribution network and finally to the grocery store shelf for sale to the local consumer. If you want your lychees fresh, don't buy them from a grocery store."

L is for Lychees...and Love

In China, the luscious ruby red, heart-shaped lychee fruit is a symbol of love and romance. Legend has it that the imperial concubine Lady Yang Kuei Fei had a passion for fresh lychee fruit. To woo Lady Yang Kuei Fei, the Emperor Hsuan Tsung, last emperor of the T'ang dynasty in the eighth century, had them brought from Canton in Southern China to his northern palace, a distance of 600 miles. The Emperor arranged for guards mounted on fast horses to convey the lychees via "pony express" so that Lady Yang Kuei Fei would get her lychees while they were still fresh.

Bill and Krystal will deliver fresh lychees to you and your beloved... overnight.

* * * * *