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THE GLOBAL GARDEN

Growing longan, the exotic 'dragon's eye' fruit

October 09, 2012|By Jeff Spurrier
  • Clusters of longan fruit hang by the dozens on the Huang family tree in Long Beach, partially hidden by the tree's dense canopy. The fruit looks unspectacular on the outside but holds a surprise within.
Clusters of longan fruit hang by the dozens on the Huang family tree in Long… (Ann Summa )

Compared with its brilliantly colored botanical cousins lychee and rambutan, longan is pedestrian at first glance. The plum-sized longan fruit is featureless and mousy brown when ripe.

However, once you crack the smooth, bark-like shell, you'll find a sweet-sour juicy pulp surrounding the seed. The translucent jelly tastes a bit like mango and looks similar to lychee but has its own unique bouquet. Peeled, the fruit looks like an eyeball -- which is how it got its name. Longan is Mandarin for “dragon’s eye.”

Longan (Dimocarpus longan) can be used in soups, desserts and candies, but it is best eaten fresh out of the shell. Originally from India and Sri Lanka, it’s popular throughout Southeast Asia. It's highly perishable but considered a fruit with good portent, sometimes placed under the bed of newlyweds in hopes of helping to produce children.

In 1992 Richie Huang’s father planted a 4-foot longan sapling from a nursery in the frontyard of his Long Beach house. He didn’t see fruit for years. Now the tree is taller than the house and sends out thick bunches of fruit in late summer, often hidden under the canopy.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture study has suggested that longan can be induced to flower if exposed to potassium chlorate, an ingredient in fireworks. But even without that explosive touch, Huang's longan is productive. Hundreds of the fruit hang in thick clusters. Bird nets cover the canopy in an effort to keep out crows. In Cambodia, Richie said, the tree's raiders would be bats.

Although lychee can be grown successfully here, longan are more forgiving of Southern California’s climate. It’s possible to propagate longan from seed but plants started through a process called air layering will bear fruit more quickly -- within a couple of years, said Tom Le at Mimosa Nursery, a Southeast Asian plant specialist in East Los Angeles. ("Layering" refers to various ways of starting new roots from branches of a plant. Air layering involves making a small cut on a branch, then wrapping it with peat or moss. Roots grow from the cut area, at which point you can clip the branch and pot it.)

Longan can be kept low (about 7 feet tall) if grown in a container, he said. Choose one that's 24 inches or larger in diameter. Don’t water the plant too much or you’ll get a lot of leaves and not much fruit.

The Global Garden, our series looking at our multicultural city through the lens of its landscapes, appears here on Tuesdays. We welcome story suggestions at home@latimes.com. For easy way to follow the L.A. scene, bookmark L.A. at Home and join us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

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