Common Name: Mayhaw, May Hawthorn, Apple Hawthorn,
Scientific Name: Crataegus aestivalis and Crataegus opaca
Family: Rosaceae (the Rose, Apple, Peach, and Plum family)
- Eastern Mayhaw (Crataegus aestivalis)
- Western Mayhaw (Crataegus opaca)
The Mayhaw is a large shrub or small tree that is native to the lowlands and wetlands of the Deep South of the U.S. It is most well known for the coral-colored jelly made from the small red berries. It can also be used as a windbreak, an erosion control and pollution-tolerant plant, and it is drought and flood-tolerant. While it prefers full sun, it can grow in the shade as an understory plant. On top of that, it is a rather beautiful tree. Now, it does have a narrow natural range, but considering its tolerance, adaptability, and its ease of hybridization with other Hawthorn species, this is a tree that is just waiting for development into other growing areas. If you live close to its natural range, then this is an ideal plant for you. If you are within its USDA Zone, this may be a great plant with which to experiment.
Native to the Deep South of the United States, Mayhaw has not been the most popular fruit. Native Americans did use this plant on occasion, but likely due to their thorns and propensity to grow on the water’s edge or wetlands in swamps (hard locations to harvest small fruit), the Mayhaw never gained the notoriety as other native fruiting trees and shrubs. However, once settlers began to populate these bayous and swamps, they developed many uses for the wild fruit. Almost 40 years ago James Sherwood Akin, a retired Louisiana merchant who was an avid gardener and amateur botanist, transplanted a single Mayhaw seedling from the wild and developed an orchard of over 1,000 trees. He continued his work until he died in 2007, at the age of 89. His work attracted the attention of Louisiana State University and the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station. Because of Sherwood and the knowledge he gained and shared, there are a number of commercial operations and a growing hobby market for the Mayhaw. He is known as the man who brought the Mayhaw out of the swamp and into the orchard.
- Older flowers can smell a bit like rotten fish.
- There are over 800 species of Hawthorn in North America. Only the early ripening species in the southern U.S. (placed in the Aestivales series) are called Mayhaws. It is unknown how many Mayhaw species there are, because Hawthorns can easily hybridize.
- Edible Fruit – I have seen Mayhaw Jelly for sale when I was living in Panhandle of Florida. I passed on it because, at the time, I thought it was too expensive. Now that I understand the rarity of this Southern specialty, I wish I would have bought a jar or three! I’ll get the chance again soon enough. My advice, and my mindset now, is to try anything at least once. Then I will never regret never having missed the opportunity to taste something unique.
- Raw – while edible, it is rather bland. Most people don’t eat it as a fresh fruit. However, there are some newer varieties that have been developed for fresh eating
- Preserved – By far, this is the most common use. The coral-colored Jams or Jelly is a specialty in the South (U.S.). Mayhaw Butter (like apple butter) is also fairly popular.
- Cooked – used in sauces and savory meals
- Baked – used in pastries, tarts, pies, etc.
- Fruit Leather
- Primary or Secondary flavoring for Beers, Wines, Liquors, Cordials, etc. Mayhaw Wine and Brandy are becoming more popular in the South.
- Ornamental Plant – Mayhaw has attractive foliage, showy blossoms, and clusters of bright fruit
- Beneficial Insect and Butterfly Plant – this plant has foliage that attracts butterflies and is said to be of benefit to native bee populations, but I can find no specifics on the species of butterfly or bees that use this tree.
- Wildlife Food Plant for birds and mammals – Birds and small mammals eat the fruit. White-tailed Deer browse on this tree.
- Shelter Plant for birds – the thorny nature makes this a great shelter
- Coppice Plant – While it is listed as a plant that can be coppiced, although I can find no good information on this subject.
- Wood – very strong and heavy. Used for tool handles and mallets.
- Erosion Control Plant – root system helps stabilize soils prone to erosion, especially for stream bank or water’s edge stabilization projects
- Windbreak Species – While not fast growing, this plant can withstand high winds
- Pollution-Tolerant Plant – often grown in areas with high pollution; can be used to help filter the air
- Drought-Tolerant Plant – this species can tolerate prolonged dry conditions once established
- Flood-Tolerant Plant – this species can tolerate very wet conditions
Yield: Extremely variable based on wild-type, variety, age, and size
Harvesting: Late April-May. Fruit should be allowed to ripen on the tree. It will fall on its own or when the tree is shaken. If the tree is entirely on land, then harvesting is typically done with sheets or canvas laid out; then the tree is shaken, and the fruit is easily harvested. If the tree overhangs the water, then the tree can be shaken, and the floating fruit is easily harvested with nets downstream.
Storage: Rarely used fresh. Processed soon after harvest.
USDA Hardiness Zone: 6-11
AHS Heat Zone: No reliable information, but the natural distribution of Mayhaw places it in AHS Heat Zone 9-8
Chill Requirement: Likely considering where this plant originates, but no reliable information is available. One report places it “south of the 1,000 hour chill line”.
Plant Type: Small-Sized Tree or Large Shrub
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Sub-Canopy Layer, Shrub Layer, Wetland Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There are a number of improved varieties (these are actually wild-found trees that have been propagated).
Pollination: Requires cross-pollination; pollinated by midges and flies.
Flowering: Early Spring (March-April)
- Years to Begin Fruiting: 5-8 years
- Years of Useful Life: Trees can live for over 50 years.
Size: 25-30 feet (7.6-9.1 meters) tall and wide
Roots: No reliable information other than multiple sources state “surface roots are usually not a problem”. Since there is no specific mention of it having a taproot (taprooted plants are usually noted), then it likely has a broad or heart-shaped fibrous root pattern. Considering that these plants can be moderately drought-tolerant, then the roots are likely not all at the surface.
Growth Rate: Slow to Medium
Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates moderate shade, but more shade usually means less fruit
Moisture: Dry to wet soils. Can tolerate very wet soils if they will drain, and it is moderately drought-tolerant once established.
Special Considerations for Growing:
This is a relatively worry-free plant as it is considered to have “superior disease resistance”. All Hawthorn species tolerate juglone (natural growth inhibitor produced by Black Walnut and its relatives) as it is often seen growing in close proximity. Consider using this tree as a buffer between your walnuts and other plantings.
I found one source that stated most Mayhaws seed will grow true to type almost all the time… this means that a seed from one plant will grow a plant which will produce fruit just like its mother. This is not true with a number of fruit trees like apples, pears, cherries, etc. This is great news for us as it simplifies propagation. Mayhaw can be propagated from seed – needs 12 weeks cold stratification for germination (the natural overwintering), but germination can take up to 18 months. This is a seed that is best to plant in Autumn immediately from ripe fruit as this will recreate the ideal conditions for germination. Softwood cuttings, hardwood cuttings, and root cuttings are also possible.
Minimal. Annual pruning in Winter to open the canopy can increase fruit production.
- Poisonous – Considering its Family, there is a good chance that the leaves and seeds contain a precursor to cyanide (large amounts need to be eaten for this to be toxic), but I can find no good information on this.