How to Plant, Grow and Care For Rambutan Trees

rambutan tree

Contents

If you live in the US or Europe, you might be wondering what on earth a rambutan tree is. It’s a heat-loving tropical plant that needs to grow in USDA hardiness zone 10 or higher, so many of you may only be able to buy them online or in specialty farmers’ markets. They’re related to lychees and grow hairy-looking fruits that you peel to reveal sweet flesh that’s a lot like grapes. Yum!

While you may never grow a rambutan tree in your backyard in the majority of the US, you can give it a try in a climate-controlled greenhouse. This tree loves warm weather and lots of humidity, so you’ll need a moist environment for it to grow in or for it to bear fruit.

If you live in the perfect rambutan climate or want to try your luck with some tropical fruits, read the following guide to growing this unique tree.

Quick Care Guide

Common Name(s)Rambutan, hairy lychee
Scientific NameNephelium lappaceum
Days to Harvest100-120
LightFull sun or 13 hours of partial shade
WaterKeep soil moist
SoilWell-draining loamy soil with a pH of 5.5-6.5
FertilizerHeavy fertilizer needs that vary throughout the year
PestsBats, birds, oriental fruit fly, green weevils, leaf-footed bugs, leaf miners, lychee giant stink bugs, mango twig borers, mealybugs
DiseasesPowdery mildew, stem canker

All About The Rambutan Tree

Close-up of Rambutan tree branches in the garden. Rambutan is an evergreen tropical plant with glossy dark green leaves that are feathery in shape. Its fruits are small, round, covered with red or yellow skin, covered with soft, hair-like spikes, and inside have a juicy translucent white flesh.
The rambutan tree originated from southeast Asia, it is known for its sweet and tangy fruit.

The rambutan tree (Nephelium lappaceum) originates from southeast Asia and can be found in the coastal lowlands of China, Thailand, Vietnam, and other surrounding countries at sea level. Temperatures under 50°F can kill the tree, so it’s no wonder why it’s considered to be so exotic in Western countries! It has since spread to southern Mexico and Central America, specifically in Costa Rica.

Rambutan fruit is sometimes called hairy lychee because of its similar appearance to lychee. (After all, they are closely-related cousins coming from the Sapindaceae family.) The soft spines create a hairy appearance, but the skin is red, and the flesh is white, just like lychee. The taste is sweet with a bit of a tang, much like grapes or strawberries.

When these trees are grown in the perfect habitat, their spreading crown can range from 32-82 feet tall! Growing them in a medium-sized to small pot in a greenhouse will likely result in a smaller tree, but you’ll still be able to get delicious fruit. 

The tree has glossy green leaves with a slightly leathery feel that can sometimes be yellow-green. Although the fruit is typically red and white, the outside can sometimes look orange or yellow, and the inside may occasionally be pale pink.

After peeling the fruit, they can be eaten raw or cooked and canned in syrup. They’re often extremely sweet and can be enjoyed as a dessert, but they are full of vitamin C. The roots and bark are often used in natural medicine, and the seed oils can be used to make candles and soap. Silk can be dyed green with young tree shoots.

The Malay word rambut translates to hair in English, and the name, Rambutan refers to the hairy appearance of the fruits. These fruits appear after budded trees flower. Flowering occurs on male trees, female trees, or hermaphroditic trees in spring through summer and again in late summer through fall. The flowers are pollinated by ants and bees.  

Planting Rambutan

Rambutan seedling is ready for planting in the soil. Top view, close-up of a young rambutan seedling with an upright, tall, narrow grey-brown trunk and large pinnate leaves composed of large, oval, glossy green leaflets. The seedling is planted in a black planting bag.
Starting a rambutan tree from seed requires a controlled growing environment.

The easiest way to get a rambutan tree growing is to start from seed indoors in a container. They require TLC from every single seed to transplant, so keeping them in a controlled environment will be the best way to increase your chance of success.

Rambutan seeds are only viable for up to one week after being harvested, so you’ll need to act fast once you get your seed. Remove the fruit from the seed and let it dry completely.

Place the seed in sandy, loamy soil with good drainage. Even though rambutans like humidity and lots of water, there’s still such a thing as too much water, especially when they’re young.

Planting rambutan trees isn’t much different than planting other fruit trees.

Cover the seed with a light layer of soil and water it well. Make sure the soil stays moist but not wet, and keep the seed under a grow light. It can take 10-21 days for it to sprout, so don’t worry if it takes a while.

Once the tree sprouts, keep it indoors with moist soil and lots of light. It won’t be ready to move outside until it’s about 1 foot tall in about 2 years and won’t produce fruit until it’s 4 or 5 years old.

You can plant the seed any time of year if you’re growing it indoors, and when it’s time to transplant, you can do so in early spring.

Caring for a Rambutan Tree

A rambutan plant needs lots of care, especially if you’re attempting to grow it in a cooler zone than it likes. Let’s take a look at what this fruit tree needs to thrive.

Sun and Temperature

View from below, close-up of ripe fruits on a Rambutan tree branch in a sunny garden. The fruits are collected in clusters, they are small, rounded, covered with red skin with thin long green spines.
To grow rambutan, full sun and consistent temperatures over 60°F are necessary.

If you can provide full sun and temperatures over 60°F all year long, you can grow rambutan with very few problems. If full sun isn’t an option, it can make do with 13 hours of partial sun, meaning that it gets a little sun every hour for 13 hours. You may have to plug in some grow lights to achieve this.

Rambutan can grow in USDA zones 10 or warmer, so the only places in the US you can grow them outside are Hawaii and the southernmost parts of Florida, Texas, and California.

If you want to grow it in a greenhouse, you’ll probably need one that will allow you to control the temperature and humidity to create a rambutan “oasis.” Aim for at least 60°F. While trees can survive at 50 degrees or warmer, they will not be happy, and at 46 degrees, they can start to lose leaves. At 39 degrees, severe damage will occur to your plant, so it’s really best to keep the temperatures above 50 when possible!

Water and Humidity

Close-up of the leaves of the Rambutan tree covered with water drops. The leaves are large, oval, smooth, glossy green.
Rambutan needs high humidity levels and requires at least an inch of water per week.

Those of you in a dry environment will certainly need a greenhouse, as the prime humidity range is 75-80%. Rambutans prefer a year-round rainy season in their native climate, and they’re going to want you to provide that for them too!

Despite all that humidity, it will need at least an inch of water each week to keep the soil moist, and likely more. If you’re growing outdoors, you probably won’t have to water it if it rained recently or if you’re in a rainy season. But those of you growing them indoors will need to stay on top of your watering schedule.

It’s better to water rambutans a little bit several times instead of one deep water, so you may need to water twice a week in some cases.

It’s best to water in the morning at the base of your tree so the roots can soak up the water before the sun starts to evaporate it.

Soil

Close-up of a small sprout of the Rambutan plant in the garden, among dark brown fertile soil. The sprout has a short and thin stem with three pairs of oval, dark green, glossy leaves.
Rambutan prefers well-draining, sandy loam or clay loam soil with a slightly acidic pH.

Well-draining soil is important so the roots don’t get too wet, so choose a sandy loam or clay loam soil to make sure excess water can run off. Rambutan like a slightly acidic soil high in organic matter with a pH of 5.5-6.5.

If you’re growing outdoors, you’ll need a depth of 6-9 feet of soil since the tree grows deep roots. If you’re growing indoors, allow your plant as much depth as possible in a large container. Container trees won’t reach the massive size of outdoor trees, though, so they likely won’t have that big of a root system.

Fertilizing

Close-up of a male hand in a white glove with a handful of Granulated mineral fertilizers on a blurred gray background. Fertilizers consist of many tiny granules of a rounded shape in a light gray color.
Fertilization requires specific methods, such as yearly application of urea, phosphate, and potash.

Fertilizing rambutans can be a bit tricky, as there are different ways you can go about it, but each method is specific.

You can opt for a yearly application where you give it 60g of urea, 115g phosphate, and 55g potash for the first year. Once it’s two years old, increase the amount to 180g urea, 345g phosphate, and 165g potash. Beginning at the three-year mark, give your tree 300g urea, 575g phosphate, and 275g potash every six months.

Another method for mature fruiting trees is to use general-purpose water-soluble fertilizer throughout the year.

Give it a 15-30-15 fertilizer in the winter months before it starts fruiting to promote fruit, a 20-10-30 after it flowers to help the setting fruit, and a 20-20-20 fertilizer 1-2 weeks after you’re finished picking fruit to help it recover and grow more fruit next year.

Pruning Your Rambutan Tree

Pruning a Rambutan tree branch in the garden. Close-up of a woman's hand with red secateurs cutting dry tree branches. The tree has large, oval, glossy green leaves and clusters of small, round fruits with a hard green skin covered with many long spines.
Prune rambutan trees to keep them healthy by removing dead or diseased branches.

Rambutans will only need pruning to keep them healthy. While the tree isn’t fruiting, remove dead or diseased branches and any branches that look unkempt if you’d like to shape it. Be careful to only remove older growth while it’s not flowering so you won’t lose any fruit.

If you’re growing a tree in a greenhouse, you can prune a young tree to keep it compact. While the tree is dormant in the early winter, cut a 45-degree angle at about knee height. Doing this will encourage it to keep a small growth habit, which is perfect if you have a smaller greenhouse.

Rambutan Propagation

Close-up of Rambutan grafting. Rambutan grafting is a horticultural method in which a branch or bud of a desired variety of rambutan is attached to the rootstock of another but compatible rambutan tree. Close-up of a branch with a tie-down plastic bag with red ropes of fertile soil for the development of roots.
The rambutan tree can be propagated by seeds, budding, grafting, and air-layering.

Growing rambutans from a single Nephelium lappaceum seed is a long and somewhat difficult process, but if you can find seeds that germinate well, it’s certainly an option for propagation. This is also the easiest way to make more trees if you only have one.

Budding is when you take the flower bud of one plant and graft it onto another. This will only work if you already have two or three trees, though, so it may not be the most feasible choice. Grafting is another choice, but it will also include two trees. Grafting is similar to budding, except it involves branches and cutting them to fit onto existing trees.

A third option is air layering (shown above), wherein you convince a young stem to develop roots. This method enables you to start a propagation on a living branch on the tree, then later cut and remove it below the area where it has developed roots and plant the new start.

Harvesting and Storing

Rambutan fruit (called rambut, the Malay word for hair) is best eaten fresh, so you may not have any left to store after you harvest them! But just in case you have some extra, we’ll cover how you can save your fresh fruit.

Harvesting Rambutans

Close-up of a gardener harvesting Rambutan fruit with a special gardening tool to pull branches. The gardener is dressed in a gray longsleeve. The Rambutan tree has large, feathery dark green leaves with large oval leaflets. The tree produces clusters of small round fruits covered with red or orange prickly skins.
To harvest ripe rambutan fruit, cut the stems the fruit are hanging onto when the fruit is mostly red and firm.

Rambutan fruit is ready to harvest when the fruit is mostly red and firm and 1 inch in diameter. The tree won’t form all the fruit at once, so you’ll need to harvest 2-3 times per week while it’s fruiting.

Use a knife or garden shears to cut the stems the fruit is hanging onto. Leave the fruit attached to a stem to reduce the risk of damaging them. A common method for harvesting fruit from tall trees is to attach a knife and a basket to the end of a long pole so the fruit will drop into the basket.

Storing Rambutans

Close-up of a gardener holding a small wooden box with freshly picked Rambutan fruits. The gardener is dressed in a red and black checkered shirt, blue and gray apron and white gloves. The fruits are small, round, covered with a thick prickly red skin.
To preserve rambutan, keep them in their skin until ready to eat, store them in the fridge or freeze them.

Keep the fruit in the skin until you’re ready to eat it to preserve the flesh inside. They’ll stay fresh on the counter for up to 2 days, or you can store them in the fridge for up to 2 weeks in a container or plastic bag. Many people love cold rambutan, so this may end up being your favorite method!

If you harvested more rambutan than you can eat, you can store them in a freezer bag for about 3 months. Lay them out on a baking sheet and freeze them.

Once they’re fully frozen, you can transfer them into a freezer bag. Using a baking sheet first will prevent them from clumping into one big rambutan ice block. Freezing them without the skins is an option, but leaving the skins on will give them an extra layer of protection.

You can also cook them into a syrup and can them for some super sweet rambutan preserves. These are packed with sweetness and Vitamin C. 

Troubleshooting

There are a handful of things that could grow wrong (pun intended), including a few pests and diseases, so it’s good to know what to expect beforehand. Let’s take a look at how you can prevent pests and other problems.

Growing Problems

Close-up of rambutan leaves which are lacking in nutrients. The leaves are large, glossy, dark green, oval with brown ragged edges.
To ensure healthy rambutan trees, it’s crucial to maintain appropriate water, sunlight, and temperature.

Rambutan trees don’t have a lot of growing problems, but water, sunlight, and temperature are sure to be problems if you live in zone 9 or below.

Remember that these trees need ideally 60°F temperatures to stay healthy and will begin to decline in lower temperatures. They need plenty of water but don’t allow the roots to sit in puddles. Use grow lights to allow as much sun as possible.

If your tree is struggling, monitor the temperature and take note of how much sun and water it’s getting to determine what the issue is. They’re heavy feeders and need a lot of fertilizer, so they could be lacking nutrients if they’re growing slowly or not producing fruit.

Pests

Close-up of mealybug-infested Rambutan fruit. A bunch of small rounded fruits with a leathery brown dry skin with long thorns are attacked by mealybugs pests. Mealybugs are small insects with oval soft bodies covered with a white waxy coating.
Protect rambutans from birds and bats, and control pests such as weevils, bugs, and mealybugs.

There are several critters that are out to get your rambutans, and birds and bats are one of them! They like to eat the fruit while they’re in the trees, so you can cover fruit with small organza drawstring bags or apply kaolin clay to keep them away. Many gardeners hang reflective decor in their trees to keep birds at bay.

Many pests will cause damage to the dark green leaves by eating leaf tissue or sucking sap. Pests that like rambutan include green weevils, leaf-footed bugs, lychee giant stink bugs, leaf miners, and mealybugs. Washing them off with water is an easy way to get rid of them, but you can also use neem oil to suffocate them or use insecticides for each kind of pest to kill them.

Oriental fruit flies go after ripe fruits, and mango twig borers go after developing fruits. Organza bags will keep twig borers away, and be sure to harvest as soon as they’re ready to prevent flies.

Diseases

Close-up of an infested branch of a Rambutan tree with powdery mildew, against a blurred background in a sunny garden. The fruits are small, rounded, covered with prickly green skin with a powdery coating.
Fungal diseases such as powdery mildew and stem canker may affect rambutan trees.

There aren’t many disease issues with rambutan trees, but you may find powdery mildew and stem canker to be problems.

Both of these are fungal issues that can be prevented with fungicides. Unfortunately, these diseases don’t have a cure, so you’ll need to remove infected plants. You can try removing only the infected portion of the plant to see if you can save what’s left.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Can you grow rambutan in the US?

A: You can grow rambutan outside in USDA zones 10 and up or in greenhouses in cooler climates.

Q: How long does it take for a rambutan tree to bear fruit?

A: A rambutan won’t produce fruit until it’s 4-5 years old.

Q: Where do rambutan trees grow?

A: Rambutan trees are native to eastern Asia.

Q: How tall do rambutan trees grow?

A: Full-sized trees can grow 32-82 feet tall but will be much smaller when grown in a medium-sized to small pot.

Q: Are lychee and rambutan the same?

A: They’re not the same, but they’re similar! They both come from the same family, Sapindaceae.

Q: What is the life span of rambutan?

A: Rambutan usually fruits for 15-20 years, although in some cases, they can last for 60 years.

Q: Are rambutan self pollinating?

A: Rambutan trees need to be cross-pollinated. However, some trees are hermaphroditic and have both male and female flowers.

Q: How can you tell if a rambutan tree is male or female?

A: It’s difficult to tell because you have to wait and see if it will produce fruit after flowering. Look for labeled plants at a nursery or grow a few trees at once.

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