By Lauri deGaris
Mayhaw is a variety of hawthorn tree noted for slender branches with long, straight, sharp thorns and tart fruit. In the spring the tree blossoms with beautiful, cup-shaped flowers. Hawthorns grow wild in old fields, orchards, woods and along streams throughout North and Central America, Europe and Asia. They produce a colorful fruit called a “haw” known worldwide for its culinary and medical uses. And, for centuries writers have heralded the legend, lore and love of hawthorns, helping us all to appreciate this heirloom tree.
The Chinese first recognized the cardiovascular benefits of hawthorn fruit in 700 B.C.E. In North America, the Cherokee used hawthorn tree bark to increase blood circulation and treat spasms. Berries were eaten to improve the appetite when ill. Infused hawthorn leaves and flowers with water create topical skin washes and lotions. Hawthorn leaves and flowers may also be tinctured as a dietary supplement and dried for healthful tea. There are many peer-reviewed, published reports regarding the efficacy of hawthorn for heart-related conditions, worldwide.
Hawthorn has been used to increase fertility and thus has appeared in spring weddings for centuries. In British folklore, the hawthorn is part of a tree triad consisting of oak, ash, and thorn. And, where all three grow together, one will find fairies. The Cherokee made a tea from the bark and bathed in it to improve their ability to win ballgames. And, I have read that a few dried hawthorn leaves carried with you on a fishing trip ensures a good catch.
The wood of the hawthorn is hard and heavy. It was perfect for making shillelaghs or walking sticks. Irish folklore states that an authentic “blackthorn shillelagh” harvested in Ireland would bring good luck and fortune to those who carried it.
One hawthorn tree was made immortal by Shakespeare. In Macbeth, the Cawdor Castle of Scotland has a hawthorn tree growing out of the rocky floor in the lowest dungeon of the great tower. This hawthorn tree is more than 600 years old.
There are many fragrant references to the hawthorn tree in the literary garden. They are beautiful, romantic, soul stirring and date back centuries. My favorite literary line was written by Jerusha Smith in 1837, “Round her she made an atmosphere of light and danced on the velvet turf beneath the hawthorn tree.” Lovely, just lovely.
The fruit of Mexican hawthorns are used to make a traditional Christmas punch. Rielitos, a confection fashioned in the shape of train rails is made from sugar, chili powder and a paste of hawthorn berries. Candied hawthorn berries are a traditional Chinese street snack during winter months, especially around the Lunar New Year. Hawthorn berries are pan-fried and coated in melted rock sugar, then threaded on skewers, allowing the sugar to harden into a golden casing and called “candy gourds.” This tradition dates back over a thousand years.
Wild mayhaw trees in the southeast United States are scarce and hard to find. Land clearing for agriculture and development have uprooted most. Scott Meyer of Congaree and Penn farm is working to ensure the mayhaw tree remains a part of the southern landscape.
Scott grew up five miles from Congaree and Penn Farm, near the Nassau/Duval County line. Scott’s father wrote a book called “Trees for the Southern Garden.” He was a local landscape/ornamental plant grower in north Jacksonville. Scott’s father had a few mayhaw trees, and Scott grew up harvesting the fruit and making jelly.
“Right now, everyone in the southeast mayhaw-producing industry is a beginner. They are beginning farmers, beginning food producers, beginning geneticists. They have a good impact locally, but it has yet to take off in a big way for local growers,” according to Scott.
Scott is looking to increase the availability of mayhaw trees, fruit and juice in the industry. He has 3500 mayhaw trees in production, the largest mayhaw orchard in the U.S. This spring marks the first full harvest since planting the orchard in 2017. His crew has been shaking trees to collect the fruit for the past several weeks.
Mayhaw fruit is pressed at Congaree and Penn Farm, creating a high quality, concentrated juice. Some of the juice will be distilled into cider at the farm. And, some of the juice will be shipped to Thomasville, Georgia, for jelly production. The final mayhaw jelly product will carry the Congaree and Penn label and be sold locally.
Scott is not the first to produce local mayhaw jelly. Back in the 1980s, Pat Bush was one of four founding female members of Mayhaw Tree, Inc. producing mayhaw jelly in Colquitt, Georgia. These women came together to lift up other women in a county where few income-producing opportunities existed. Mayhaw Tree, Inc. paid $5 a gallon for fresh mayhaw fruit. Mayhaw Tree, Inc. turned fruit into mayhaw jelly, mayhaw syrup and mayhaw butter. “Character is important in a jar of mayhaw jelly,” said Pat. “Our mission is to preserve its delicate taste and character without subduing either and offer it to the world.”
The Congaree and Penn crew have just completed pressing this years’ harvest into juice. I have purchased a gallon and will be “putting up” mayhaw jelly and making mayhaw sorbet this week. I will also be singing hail to the hawthorn, for it is a medicinal, spiritual, culinary and literary hero!
Congaree and Penn is a Florida farm and restaurant dedicated to agriculture and culinary endeavors, and gathering the community to enjoy both. To purchase authentic Congaree and Penn mayhaw jelly or hard cider visit: https://www.congareeandpenn.com/
Austin, Daniel. F. Florida Ethnobotany. 2004
Cunningham, Scott. 1993. Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Llewellyn Publications, Minnesota.
Foster, S. and Duke, J.A. 1990. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
National Institute of Health – https://www.Pubmed.gov