The Litchi Tomato is an unusual plant with some heavy duty prickly thorns. It reaches 3 to 4 feet in height and produces white flowers similar to nightshade family plants - eggplant and potato, but they are more pronounced and prolific. Like its distant cousins the tomatillo and ground cherry the fruit develops within a papery husk but generally hangs in clusters.
Other than the thorns, the leaves are similar to tomato leaves. It is not self pollinating and needs more than one plant to cross pollinate.
It's origins are uncertain, although it is considered a South American native, it is also found in Australia and New Zealand as well as South Africa, Asia and Europe so presumably it has ancient origins.
It is a relatively attractive plant with both ornamental and culinary uses. Its prickly thorns serve well as a deterrent to rodents, birds, deer and felines - not 100% fool proof -but helpful in discouraging pests from other cultivated crops.
The ripe fruits are a deep red and shaped somewhat like plum tomatoes, a little rounder sometimes. The flesh and seed case is a greenish yellow and contains an abundance of small flat seeds. Many more seeds than true tomatoes, they are also harder. When eaten raw the seeds can be a bit bothersome.
The fruit itself is a tad tart and is usually prepared with enhancements such as hot peppers if you like an atomic tingle, or honey and various sweeteners for a more nectorious culinary experience.
Being a South American Native you would expect the Litchi Tomato to be a warm weather crop, on the contrary it is fairly frost tolerant and will easily withstand light frosts with temperatures as low as 20 - 25 Degrees F. In areas where winters do not get much colder than 25 F they can actually over winter. They can be grown as a annual or perennial. They also reseed themselves and you can expect to find volunteers popping up after your initial season.
Growing Litchi is a snap, if you've grown tomatoes than Litchi isn't much different. Just watch those darned thorns [ouch] . Seeds are best started indoors for transplant under suitable conditions when the plant is of adequate size. Space them slightly over two feet apart in an area with full sun, a little shade is tolerable but full sun is best.
An advantage they have over Tomatoes and other nightshade plants is their resistance to many pests. They produce a substance known as solasodine more profusely than many plants. Solasodine is an alkaloid compound which is poisonous to many insects and deters others that have an evolved instinct to steer clear of it. Unfortunately bugs that traditionally harass other nightshade plants such as the Colorado Potato Beetle and Tomato hornworm never evolved an instinct to steer clear, in fact they have a limited resistance to solasodine so will from time to time stop by for a snack.
When the fruit is ripe, the papery husk will open. The litchi tomato should pop right off the stem with a light tug when fully ripe, if you have to pull any harder it is best left on the plant a little while longer to ripen. If left unharvested the fruits drop to the ground.
* Litchi Tomatoes should not be confused with Lychee, a fruit, sometimes also spelled "Litchi". The two are completely unrelated.