Excerpt from Southern Bounty: How To Grow and Enjoy Southeastern Native Fruits and Nuts
Here is a chapter excerpt from Southern Bounty: How to Grow and Enjoy Southeastern Native Fruits and Nuts. This book is available in Kindle or print format from Amazon, and soon (hopefully!) a bookstore near you!
Natural Habitat and Background
Mayhaws are small pome fruits that are grown on compact trees in the Hawthorn family. Native to creek bottoms and river banks, they are a cherished delicacy in much of the rural South. The name comes from the fact that the fruit ripen in May, and that the tree is part of the Hawthorne family. Mayhaws are native from eastern Texas to Florida, and up the Atlantic coast to Virgina. Historical records indicate that Native Americans harvested mayhaws in early summer, and it is likely early European settlers did the same
Mayhaws themselves are more tart in flavor than sweet, meaning that most people prefer to process them into jellies and syrups rather than eat them off the tree.
Historically, mayhaws were harvested by boat, during a time when the creek or river was high, and the mayhaws could be seen floating in the water. This harvested fruit was then used to make wines, jellies, syrup, and preserves.
Mayhaws are beloved by deer, squirrels, raccoons, and many other types of wildlife.
Mayhaw trees thrive in a wide variety of soils, and they are sometimes used for erosion control or wind breaks. The wood is hard and strong, and is sometimes made into tool handles.
There are two common species of mayhaws that populate the river banks and creek bottoms of the South. Crataegus aestivalis grows from eastern Alabama into Florida and up to Virginia. Crataegus opaca grows from western Alabama to east Texas.
Mayhaws usually begin producing at between five to seven years of age.
Where to Plant
Mayhaw trees have a wide tolerance for soil conditions, since they are one of the only fruit trees that actually thrive in wet soils, while at the same time doing well in drier upland soils. They prefer acidic soil, so it is a good idea to incorporate peat moss or some other acidic organic matter at planting if the soil pH is above 6.5. A mulch of cotton seed hulls, pine straw, or peat moss will help keep the soil around the mayhaw trees at a suitable pH.
Since mayhaws naturally grow along shady river banks, they can tolerate shade far better than other fruit trees. They also do well when planted in full sun. For best results, plant mayhaw trees where they get several hours of morning sun,with filtered afternoon sun.
Space mayhaw trees 15-20 feet apart. It is best to plant at least two trees for adequate pollination.
Mayhaw trees are attractive landscape plants with their small size, spring blooms, and beautiful foliage. In winter, the natural form of the tree is appealing when the leaves have fallen. The red berries will show against the green foliage in May or early June.
Care and Maintenance
Mayhaw trees thrive with minimal care. Usually what is required is pruning of dead branches, and weeding around the tree while it is young. As with all fruit trees, it is a good idea to monitor it occasionally for pests, through this is rarely a problem.
During hot, dry summers, especially over the first few years, mayhaw trees should be given adequate water to help in establishing a healthy root system. They are fairly tolerant to drought once established.
Even though most native mayhaw trees are self-pollinating, better fruit set is usually seen if two trees are planted in proximity to one another to allow for some cross-pollination.
A couple of fungal diseases can harm mayhaw trees, but these are usually not fatal and do not generally impact productivity. Pruning mayhaw trees with an open center shape (like a pruned peach tree), helps prevent fungal infections. Insects are usually not a problem. Planting wild stock, as opposed to named cultivars, may help reduce the incidence of disease, since wild plants may have more natural disease resistance.
Mayhaw trees are small, compact trees, with a fairly slow rate of growth. They grow to 20-30 feet high at maturity and are bushy when small. Mayhaw trees grow to about one foot their first year, and are usually five to six feet when they begin producing fruit. Ideal site conditions and adequate water will ensure the tree reaches fruiting age and maturity in the optimal amount of time.
Mayhaw trees are relatively long-lived, and will resprout from the roots if the top is killed.
Native mayhaws spread by seed. For the home gardener, obtaining a mayhaw tree is as easy as acquiring a couple of mayhaws (from the woods or from a neighbor), removing the soft fruit, and cleaning the seed. Mayhaw seeds require a dormant period before germinating. For best results, place mayhaw seeds in moist soil, and store in a refrigerator for 3-4 months to simulate outdoor winter conditions.
It is sometimes easier to plant the seed in a container in a protected area to prevent unwanted visitors (raccoons, possums, or squirrel). Screen or netting will prevent predation by wildlife. Plant about ¾” deep in a fine peat-based soil. Keep soil moist, ggreen shoots will begin sprouting from the seed.
Alternatively, mayhaw seeds can be planted outside in the final planting location. Winter cold will break the natural dormancy. The seedlings should emerge in spring. Mark the planting site to differentiate the young mayhaw trees from spring weeds.
Native mayhaws are available at some plant nurseries. A number of cultivated varieties of mayhaws exist. These named varieties are grafted onto native mayhaw rootstock.
Preserving Your Harvest
Because of the natural tartness of the fruit, most people process mayhaws into jellies or wines. Mayhaws can also be dried, and eaten with a little sugar. Native Americans dried mayhaws and ate them throughout the year.
A traditional southern treat is mayhaw jelly. To enjoy your own mayhaw jelly, try this recipe:
Place 4 quarts of mayhaws in large boiler
Pour 6 cups of water in boiler with mayhaws
Bring mayhaw/water mixture to a boil, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes
Cool, then drain through a colander. Use a large spoon to gently press the fruit
Strain juice through 2 or 3 layers of cheesecloth, or a jelly bag, or a clean, thin piece of cloth
This method should yield about 6 cups of strained juice.
Now take 4 cups of strained juice
1 box of powdered pectin
5 and ½ cup of sugar
Mix pectin with juice and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves
Boil on high for 1 minute 15 seconds, stirring constantly
Remove from heat, and quickly skim off the white froth at the top
Pour immediately into sterile jelly jars, leaving about ¼” at the top.
Seal tops with sterile jelly jar lids, as per manufacturer’s recommendation.
Allow jars to cool.
To dry mayhaws, wash the fresh fruit with clean water, dab dry with a towel, and spread evenly on a food dehydrator. When fully dry, mayhaws look similar to dried cranberries. Store these dried mayhaws in moisture-free environment, and they should last for several months.
Mayhaws can also be frozen whole for later processing. Place freshly collected unwashed mayhaws in freezer bags or clean empty plastic milk cartons, and place in a freezer. Frozen mayhaws should stay fresh for a year.