Horticultural manipulation techniques to improve yield, fruit size and quality in 'Wai Chee' litchi (Litchi chinensis Sonn.)
In South Africa, a shortage of litchi cultivars to expand the very short harvesting period has seriously threatened the viability of the local export orientated Litchi Industry. Only two cultivars have dominated commercial plantings for more than a century, namely ‘HLH Mauritius’ and ‘McLean’s Red’. The marketing period of litchis from South Africa coincides with large export volumes from competitor countries such as Madagascar, resulting in lower returns for local growers. To address this situation, the late season cultivar ‘Wai Chee’ was imported amongst others from Australia. ‘Wai Chee’ is harvested at a time in South Africa when there is a gap in worldwide litchi production, making the cultivar potentially very profitable. However, its potential and subsequent use in the industry is affected by small fruit size and questionable internal quality. As the South African Litchi Industry is export orientated and the qualities of ‘HLH Mauritius’ fruit currently dictate export requirements, solutions need to be found to improve fruit size and fruit quality in ‘Wai Chee’ litchi. In this study, a number of horticultural manipulation techniques were investigated with the aim of enhancing yield, fruit size and quality in ‘Wai Chee’ litchi. The use of chemical applications of foliar nutrients and plant growth regulators were found to improve certain fruit characteristics in ‘Wai Chee’. Foliar nutrient applications of nitrogen, potassium and calcium during the early stages of fruit set and -development improved fruit set and subsequently yield, and also increased fruit mass, fruit size and flesh mass. Treatments with potassium nitrate (KNOз), calcium nitrate (CaNOз) and calcium metalosate proved to be the most enhancing nutrient applications. Applications of synthetic auxins and auxin-like substances during the 2-3g stage of fruit development improved fruit size, fruit mass and flesh mass in ‘Wai Chee’. The combination treatment of Tipimon® (2,4,5-TP), applied at the 2-3g stage, followed by Maxim® (3,5,6-TPA) a week later, yielded the best results in this regard. With biological practices, pollination was found to have an influence on litchi tree- and fruit characteristics. Pollen source proved to have an influence on fruit set and fruit retention at harvest in ‘Wai Chee’. Initial fruit set was lower when using cross-pollination compared to the use of self-pollination in female flowers of ‘Wai Chee’, whereas final fruit retention was higher with the use of cross-pollinators when compared to retention of fruit with self-pollination. Although some beneficial effects with different pollen donors on fruit characteristics were observed, these effects were not significant, and would therefore necessitate further investigation. Pollen donor effect on quality parameters such as Titratable acid (TA)- and Total Soluble Solid (TSS) content of fruit was not significant. Cultivar differences regarding fruit characteristics and maturation rate were detected with the use of cultural practices such as bunch covering materials in ‘HLH Mauritius’ and ‘Wai Chee’. Beneficial effects on fruit size were obtained with thicker covering materials with nominal mass of 70 and 80 g/m² respectively on ‘HLH Mauritius’, while with ‘Wai Chee’, thinner covering materials (60 and 65 g/m²) showed enhancing effects. Maturation rate was significantly delayed only on ‘Wai Chee’ with the use of thicker covering materials (70 and 80 g/m²). Differences in colour were detected amongst different covering materials, but these should be verified with chromameter technology. Covering of fruit bunches for better fruit size and a later harvest date would, especially for ‘Wai Chee’ as a late season cultivar, be beneficial, since better prices are realised towards the end of the season.