The Forgotten Mayhaw
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.