What’s a Mayhaw?
Courtesy Louisiana Mayhaw Organization
My family loves mayhaws. What’s a mayhaw, you ask?
If you asked my nephew, he’d say, “Mayhaw—that’s the jelly I like.” If you asked my mom, she’d say, “Mayhaws—that’s those berries I have to pick up every May.” When I call my mom during the month of May, she’s most likely under the mayhaw trees, gathering mayhaws, preparing juice, making jelly, and freezing the leftover berries for later. The mayhaw, the fruit of the mayhaw tree, is a lesser-known berry that is harvested in—you guessed it—May. They’re actually hawthorn berries that ripen and drop in early summer, around the month of May.
Mayhaw trees (Crataegus aestivalis, C. opaca, and C . rufula) are indigenous to the southern United States and grow in the wild as far west as Texas. They thrive in South’s wetland environments and produce small, tart-to-tasteless, berry-sized fruits that range in hue from yellow to red. In the wild, mayhaw berries look very much like cranberries or small crabapples. They vary in taste, but the berries are usually fruity and tart. Most would say they’re far too tart to eat straight from the tree—and that’s where the jelly comes in.
The joy of the mayhaw is the making of its eponymous jelly. Mayhaw jelly is one of the South’s greatest culinary pleasures, at breakfast or otherwise. Slather it on a slice of toast or add it to a dessert dish, and you’ll find yourself enjoying a truly Southern flavor, a sweet jelly with just a hint of puckering tartness. The ideal color of mayhaw jelly depends on your taste preferences, your jelly-making skills, and the year’s berry harvest, but my family prefers a jar of clarified crimson, a clear cranberry hue. Mayhaw syrup is also a Southern favorite. You can make your own jelly and syrup, or you can buy it—a strategy that provides all of the flavor and requires none of the effort.
Some Southern towns celebrate mayhaws by hosting spring- and summertime mayhaw festivals. Colquitt, Georgia; Daisetta, Texas; El Dorado, Arkansas; Marion, Louisiana; and Starks, Louisiana all have annual mayhaw fests. If you’re curious, or if you like mayhaws as much as my family does, you’ll want to drop by a mayhaw festival and taste-test some jellies the very next chance you get.
Thanks to my mom’s mayhaw-gathering and jelly-making efforts, we’re flush with mayhaw spreads all year long. If you want to cultivate your own, you can buy mayhaw trees for future harvests (here and here), or you can go searching. If you find yourself near a creek or river in the South, look around for a mayhaw tree. If it’s May (and if you’re lucky), you may soon be looking at the makings of some tasty mayhaw jelly.
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Have you tasted a mayhaw? How about mayhaw jelly? We know there are more than a few Southern families—not just mine—who make a big batch every year in the summertime.
Very little information can be found in the historical docket on the native American fruit, the mayhaw, ‘Crataegus aestivalis.’ This is true because of several factors, one being the size of the mayhaw and the bland taste of the fruit found growing in the wild state. These factors did not excite early American botanists and explorers such as William Bartram, because they did not fulfill their expectation as a classic fruit, since the native Indians ignored them. The crop generally ripened suddenly and was gone. Another reaon for the historical record vacuum is that the wild trees grew in ‘no-mans-land’ locations at swamps and marginal edges, and the mayhaw trees were armed with abundant thorns.
Mayhaw trees are highly desirable as fruit trees, ornamentals, and as a wildlife source food. Mayhaw trees are native to the swamps of most southern, Gulf Coast states. The tree generally has thorns, but some new cultivars have been grafted that are thornless; however, thornless trees don’t seem to fruit as heavily as the thorny trees, even though the size of the fruit is as large as an olive on the thornless tree cultivars.
Mayhaws grow well in a wide range of pH values, preferably acidic, low pH’s like those found in swamps. Most gardeners think mayhaws will not grow on high ground, since they are found growing in swamps and flooded lowlands, but this is not true. The mayhaw grows well on a wide selection of soil types and is prolific even on upland locations.
Mayhaws are botanically closely related to apple, pear, and crabapple trees, and the rootstock of mayhaws has been used successfully to dwarf those fruits. The flowers of mayhaws are abundant and fragrant, very attractive to bees, appearing from the first in February and March, and the fruit ripens in May, much earlier than most other fruit trees. The fruit ripens in clusters much like cherries growing to about one inch in size if the tree is a hybrid grafted cultivar. The fruit is covered by a thin membrane, which is red, orange, or yellow in color. The pulp is usually creamy white and tender with a few seeds in the center. The flavor varies considerably, from bland to sour, bitter, or mildly sweet.
Tens of thousands of mayhaw trees are found growing wild in Miller County, Georgia, where festivals are held each year in May to celebrate the ripening of the crop into a product that birthed mayhaw jelly, promoted as the world’s best jelly. The county seat, Colquitt, Georgia, boasts the title of the “Mayhaw Capital of the World.”
Mayhaws are high in potassium, calcium, Vitamin C, and Beta Carotene. Mayhaws can be tasty when eaten fresh from some new grafted cultivars, but usually are made into jellies, jams, sauces, syrups, and wines. The LSU AgCenter is promoting a drink combining mayhaws and muscadines that, in a taste-test trial, showed the juice containing mayhaws won first place above cranberry, grape, and apple juice.
Once Mayhaws were only known as thorny hawthorns that grew in the swamps that produced bushels of floating red berries in May that could be easily scooped up with nets out of rivers, creeks and lakes for jelly making. Much of this activity took place near Colquitt, Georgia where tons of this jelly preserved in clear glass jars was sought out by gourmets for the traditional breakfast treat to be spooned onto hot buttered toast or biscuits. South Georgia farmers began to take a serious look at growing mayhaw berries commercially after observing the sheer panic and scrambling of tourists and chefs to buy mayhaw jelly and other edible mayhaw products.
Many commercial operations are now optimistically underway throughout the South, since grafted cultivars are available and were introduced from researchers to growers and backyard producers. These hobbyists can grow mayhaws in all states of the U.S. and on high ground that can tolerate various levels of fertility and composition. Try growing some of these trees in your garden.
By Pat Rick
Mayhaw – a Native Fruit Tree Worth Considering for Niche Markets
The last year has been wet and stormy and the trend continues as we leave winter behind for spring. Fruit growers may be searching for a variety tolerant of excessive moisture, that will grow well in our waterlogged soils? Well, look no further than the humble mayhaw (Cratagus aestivalis, C. rufula, C. opaca), a fruit that’s been enjoyed in parts of the southern U.S. for generations, but is virtually unknown in other locales.
Mayhaw fruits have traditionally not been cultivated, but were collected in the wild. As early as the 1800s, they have been collected from boggy or swampy areas for their excellence in producing jelly. As more swamps were drained or fenced off throughout the 20th century, many traditional mayhaw collection sites either disappeared or became inaccessible. Thankfully in the 1980s, efforts were made by the University of Georgia (UGA) to collect, evaluate, and select for mayhaw cultivars that will grow on both wet and dry sites.
Due to these efforts, the mayhaw is now less obscure, but still far from a household name. Over 21 cultivars have been tested for crop production by UGA. Although in the wild they grow without human assistance, planted in a cropping situation mayhaws will need to be fertilized twice a year with 10-10-10, sprayed with dormant oil to control scale, and sprayed on an as needed basis with fungicides and insecticides similar to peach production. Further explanation on this care program is noted in Circular 966 “Experiments and Observations on Growing Mayhaws as a Crop in South Georgia and North Florida”.
One particular pest to look out for in mayhaws is cedar-quince rust, Gymnosporangium clavipes. This fungus also occurs on pear, apple and quince. Cankers form on eastern red cedar host plants, which transmit spores to the mayhaw fruits. These spores germinate on the mayhaw and render the fruit inedible. Although myclobutanyl, a fungicide that offers some cedar-quince rust control exists, is a good strategy to plant mayhaw trees as far from cedars as possible.
Unlike peach trees, mayhaws should be initially pruned at one-year-old to establish good branching structure, then left alone, except for removal of dead or diseased wood and crossing branches. This is because partially shaded fruit will have better quality. The fruit tend to scald in extreme sunlight.
Mayhaw, Fruit, Immature
Overall, mayhaws require less intensive management than peaches. Additionally, they offer growers an opportunity to join a niche market for fresh sales to private and commercial jelly makers. Growers can also make and sell their own jellies, preserves and candies under Florida’s current cottage food law. It might be time to give mayhaws a try!
For more information, use the following links:
- North Florida Fruit Enthusiasts Might Consider Mayhaws
- Experiments and Observations on Growing Mayhaws as a Crop in South Georgia and North Florida
- Quince Rust on Mayhaw
by Matthew Orwat
Posted: March 14, 2019
Category: Agriculture, Home Landscapes, Horticulture