What's a Mayhaw?
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.