Longin’ for Longan: This Unassuming Fruit Grows Well in Southwest FloridaNov 21, 2021 08:11PM ● By ERIK ENTWISTLE
Have you ever tried a longan? Until moving to Florida I had never heard of these small, round, unassuming-looking fruits, but after spotting them at the Sanibel Island Farmers Market, I decided to try some. And now they’re growing in my backyard.
Only in commercial production in Florida since the 1990s, the longan is a more recent addition to Southwest Florida’s tropical landscape, but it is one that is sure to gain in popularity. The fruit is similar to the more well-known lychee, with both fruits being members of the soapberry family (Sapindaceae). The longan, however, is neither as large nor as juicy as the lychee, and the nearly smooth skin is a dull tan color as opposed to the more dramatic, pinkish-red color of the bumpy-skinned lychee. Moreover, the taste of a longan is less pronouncedly perfumed than that of the lychee, having rather a musky taste resembling that of cantaloupe.
Despite appearing to be an ugly stepsister to the lychee, the longan has its own distinct appeal. Part of that appeal is the ritual work of eating the fruit out of hand. First, crack open the dull brown skin/shell with your fingernail or simply use your fingers to squeeze and split the skin away from the stem area. This exposes the white, translucent flesh of the fruit, resembling an eyeball, with the black round seed visible inside enhancing this effect. Indeed, the name longan derives from the Cantonese term for dragon eye.
After admiring its eyeball appearance, pop the fruit into your mouth, where the tongue separates the seed from the flesh so the seed can be discarded (if desired, into one of the empty shell halves). Turns out this can be much neater than eating cherries, where the staining pits have nowhere to go, or lychees, which leak juice when split open and have flesh that tends to cling to the seed.
With the fruit growing on us, we decided to try growing longan ourselves by planting a tree, especially since the quality of fruits at the farmers market had been uneven. We planted a Thai variety named Biew Kiew, obtained from FruitScapes Nursery on Pine Island. Growing this fruit has been nearly trouble free, since longan trees actually prefer our sandy soil and have few pests, but there are several things to keep in mind when considering adding this tree to your landscape.
First and foremost is the large size of the tree, 30- to 40-feet tall, with a wide growth habit requiring a recommended 25-foot spacing from other plants. Once you have planted a longan tree, consider staking it for the first few years while it gets established, as ours toppled in a windstorm and had to be propped back up. As the tree gets taller, some of the ripening fruit will become out of reach and require a ladder and/or pruning saw to assist in harvesting.
Fruits ripen all at once in August, so it’s a great idea to freeze some of the fruits whole. When you’re ready to eat one, remove from the freezer and let stand for a few minutes or run under water to thaw the shell. This makes it easy to remove and enjoy the frozen fruit inside as a sorbet-like treat.
Speaking of harvests, all varieties of longan produce erratically, and in some years may skip fruiting entirely. Our tree, for example, produced fruit in 2019 and 2021 but decided to skip 2020. Fortunately, it’s worth the wait.
Pianist, instructor, and musicologist Erik Entwistle lives and teaches on Sanibel. He writes the Stay Tuned column for TOTI Media. A favorite hobby is growing vegetables and fruit using sustainable gardening methods.