When To Pick Mayhaws: Tips For Harvesting Mayhaw Fruit

When To Pick Mayhaws: Tips For Harvesting Mayhaw Fruit

By: Teo Spengler

Mayhaws are trees in the hawthorn family. They produce small round fruit that look like miniature crabapples. Those harvesting mayhaw fruit don’t chow them down raw but cook them into jams or desserts. Read on for tips on when and how to harvest mayhaw.

Mayhaw Harvest Time

Mayhaws are small trees with rounded canopies that grow wild in the East and Southeast parts of the United States. The mayhaw fruit typically appears on the trees in May. Fruits are the size of cherries and the shape of crabapples, usually colored pink or red. The fruit is edible but not very good eaten right from the tree. However, it makes delicious jellies, jams, desserts and even wine.

These days the trees are being cultivated for the mayhaw harvest. Each tree yields a different amount of fruit, but some produce as much as 100 gallons (378 L.) in a single year. If you have mayhaws and want to start harvesting mayhaw fruit, you’ll have many options of how to proceed.

When to Pick Mayhaws

The mayhaw harvest doesn’t begin until the fruit is ripe, and this depends on when the tree flowers. You can begin your mayhaw harvest about 12 weeks after the first blossoms appear.

But over 100 cultivars of mayhaw trees have been developed, and each cultivar blossoms at a different time – as early as January and as late as May. That makes it impossible to give a general rule about when to pick mayhaws.

Some mayhaws are ready for mayhaw picking in March, others as late as July. Growers often hope for late flowering to avoid the damage frosts do to crops when flowering trees face below-zero temperatures.

How to Harvest Mayhaws

Once it’s time for the mayhaw harvest, you’ll have to decide what system of mayhaw picking you are going to use. Harvesting mayhaw fruit can be time-consuming since many cultivars have fruit that ripen over a week or more.

Perhaps the most common way to go about mayhaw picking is to simply let the fruit fall to the ground as it ripens. This mayhaw harvest method works efficiently if you clear and clean the areas under the tree, making pick-up easier.

Another way to go about mayhaw picking is called shake-and-catch. Growers lay blankets or tarps under the tree, then shake the trunk until fruits fall. This mimics the way that walnuts are harvested and can be the most efficient way to get fruit off the tree fast.

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How to Grow Mayhaw

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The mayhaw (Crataegus spp., including C. aestivalis, C. rufula or C. opaca) is prized for both its fragrant blooms and edible, berry-sized fruits. Use mayhaw fruits in jams, jellies or for wine-making. The small trees, which are fruiting hawthorns, grow in U.S. Department of Agriculture zones 8 to 10. Although their wild counterparts often thrive in boggy conditions, cultivated mayhaws simply need a consistently moist soil and full sun or light shade. In warm regions, fruit trees can go into the ground as early as January.

Adjust the soil's pH level if necessary. Mayhaws thrive in a slightly acidic pH level of 6.0 to 6.5. If the soil is alkaline, add 1 pound of sulfur to a 10-foot-by-10-foot area for every 1 point you need to lower pH. If it is too acidic, add 5 pounds of limestone for every 1 point you need to raise the pH in the same size area.

Dig a planting hole the same depth as the height of the seedling's root ball and twice as wide. Set the tree in the hole, backfill with soil and water the area thoroughly. If planting more than one mayhaw, space them 20 feet apart in all directions.

Scatter 1/2 pound of 5-10-10 fertilizer around the base of the tree, keeping the fertilizer at least 8 inches from the trunk. Water the fertilizer into the soil.

Prune the tree soon after planting. Cut the trunk so it is about 2 feet high, which will encourage it to develop lower side branches. This optional step makes it easier for a home fruit grower to tend to the tree and harvest fruit. Train the tree so it forms a single, central trunk.

Keep the tree well-watered. Although you don't have to re-create the swampy conditions of wild mayhaws, moist soil will produce the best blooms and fruit yields. Water once a week during periods of low rainfall, providing a minimum of one inch of water with each session.

Fertilize with 5-10-10 again in March and May in the first year of planting, but this time scatter 1/4-pound of the plant food with each application. Water the soil around the tree thoroughly after each fertilizer application.

Feed the tree every year in early spring starting the second year of planting. Use 1 pound of 5-10-10 for every inch the tree reaches in diameter. In years in which the mayhaw performs poorly in terms of fruit yield, give the tree a second application in the late summer, using the same amount given the previous spring.

Harvest the fruit when the tree begins bearing, two to three years after planting. Mayhaw ripens in April or May. Spread a clean ground cloth under the tree and gently shake the trunk so the fruit falls.


Experimental Orchards and Cultivar Evaluations

In 1985, four named mayhaw cultivars selected from wild groves in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas were planted at a test orchard near Tifton, Georgia. Native seedlings from Georgia were also included in the planting. From 1988 to 1996, the test orchard expanded to include an additional 20 named cultivars and additional seedlings. One to four trees of each cultivar were planted.

Most trees in the orchard were grafted on Crataegus aestivalis or C. opaca rootstock a few were on their own roots. Some trees were grafted on Washington hawthorn (C. phaenopyrum) rootstock. The trees were planted on either a moderately wet Alapaha loamy sand without irrigation or on a moderately dry Tifton loamy sand with and without drip irrigation. Soil pH was adjusted to 6.0 to 6.5. Young trees were fertilized in the early spring and early summer at the rate of 1/2 to 1 pound of premium grade10-10-10 per inch of trunk diameter. Older trees were fertilized twice a year – in early spring and summer – with a balanced fertilizer at about the same rate as the adjacent peach orchards. Insecticides and fungicides were applied post-bloom each year on bearing trees, and winter dormant oil sprays were used to control scale if needed.

In 1987, an orchard was established at the University of Georgia Attapulgus Research Farm near Bainbridge, Georgia. One hundred trees (mostly Crataegus aestivalis) collected from 33 diverse sites in North Florida and South Georgia were planted on a moderately dry Norfolk loamy sand with drip irrigation. In 1992, this planting was expanded to include 21 cultivars of Crataegus opaca from Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas grafted on Crataegus opaca rootstock. Soil pH was adjusted to 6.0 to 6.5. Young trees were fertilized in the early spring and early summer at the rate of 1/2 to 1 pound of premium grade10-10-10 per inch of trunk diameter. Older trees were fertilized twice a year with a balanced fertilizer at about the same rate as the adjacent peach orchard. Peach insecticides and fungicides were applied post-bloom each year on the bearing trees.

Cultivars and seedlings were evaluated on the basis of bloom date, crop load, tree form, and fruit size, shape, firmness, appearance, color and retention on the tree. Typical full bloom dates varied from mid-February to mid-March, depending on the cultivar.

Crop loads varied from no production to heavy production depending on cropping ability and date of the last spring freeze. Severe freezes occurred at Tifton and Attapulgus on March 13 to 15, 1993 (low temperature about 22? F), March 9, 1996 (low temperature about 20? F), and March 13, 1998 (low temperature about 24? F).

Fruit size (measured in width) varied from 0.43 inches to over 0.83 inches. Fruit shape varied from oblong to oblate. Fruit appearance was rated on a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 considered the best possible, and ranged from 4 to 8 with 8 being a fairly uniform cherry red color. Many buyers consider cherry red fruit with a glossy red finish and a pink flesh the most desirable. Fruit firmness was rated on a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 considered the best possible, and ranged from 4 to 8. Fruit retention on the tree was rated on a 1-to-10 scale, with 5s dropping (shattering) more easily than desired, 7s considered commercially ideal, 8s slightly too well retained and 10s excessively retained. Fruit retention varied from 3 to 9, depending on the cultivar. Trees that retain their fruit well under normal weather conditions but drop it with vigorous hand shaking of the scaffold limbs are considered desirable.

Several insect and diseases were noted during the study and identified by university entomologists and plant pathologists.


Mayhaw Growers Innovate Expand Industry

Charles J. Graham, Chaney, John A., Pyzner, John R.

Elmer Langston, a producer from Pollock, holds a branch of a mayhaw bush during a tour that was part of the Mayhaw Conference April 17. Langston expects a good harvest (see inset at top right) to begin near the end of April.

ALEXANDRIA – Mayhaw growers from the area met recently in Alexandria to learn about new developments and opportunities in the industry as it continues to expand.

"The growers in Mayhaw Association are very innovative," said LSU AgCenter horticulturist Dr. John Pyzner. "They are encouraging research, creating new markets, developing improved varieties and mechanizing their harvesting operations."

The April 17 gathering was both the association’s meeting and a chance for growers and researchers to share the latest information about the industry that centers on the popular fruit.

The LSU AgCenter and the Mayhaw Association began studies several years ago to determine the health benefits and improve the marketability of the fruit as it moved from growing wild in the swamps to being cultivated in orchards.

"Mayhaws are a good source of antioxidants," said Dr. Charlie Graham, an associate professor of horticulture with the LSU AgCenter. "Antioxidants in fruit play a role in preventing diseases caused as a result of oxidative stress."

Oxidative stress, which releases free oxygen radicals in the body, has been implicated in a number of disorders including cardiovascular malfunction, cataracts, cancers, rheumatism and many other auto-immune diseases.

Consumers want to know the health benefits of different fruit, and Graham said additional research is needed to determine the stability of the antioxidants in processed fruit products.

"These health benefits can help growers market their product," he said.

Charlie Hutchins, an owner of Grant Fruit Processing Co. near Pollock, said he purchased 40,000 pounds of mayhaws last year and hopes to purchase more than 75,000 this year. The company currently sells jelly in more than 200 stores in the southern states and also wholesales mayhaw juice to other jelly makers.

"I need to purchase more mayhaws to meet the demand," Hutchins said.

"I pay $1.25 per pound for orchard fruit and $1 for fruit from the wild," he said, explaining, "Orchard fruit is higher quality."

Mayhaw breeders like Billy Craft of Woodworth are accepting the challenge of developing mayhaw varieties to meet the production needs of the industry.

"Developing new mayhaw varieties is a labor of love," said Craft, as he began a presentation on improved mayhaw varieties. "I strive to develop varieties that are resistant to many diseases, have uniform ripening characteristics, have less fruit shattering and are easy to shake off the plant during harvest."

Craft said Red Majesty is a new late-blooming mayhaw variety that is easy to harvest, and he said it will help growers extend the mayhaw harvest season.

Another problem for mayhaw growers is having enough resources to harvest the crop when it is ripe and ready.

Bobby Talbert, a mayhaw grower from Vidor, Texas, shared information on three different mayhaw harvesters that were developed by growers to assist in harvesting the crop this year.

"The mechanized harvesters will help growers harvest the crop easier," said Talbert, continuing, "And they may help growers expand their mayhaw operations."

The promotion of mayhaws will get a boost with the launching of a new Web site at www.mayhaw.org. In addition, mayhaws are promoted through five festivals held annually in Marion, La., Starks, La., El Dorado, Ark., Daisetta, Texas, and Colquitt, Ga.

To finish the day, conference participants also toured Grant Fruit Processing’s plant and the Little Eden mayhaw orchard.

In addition to the lectures and tours, a mayhaw cooking contest was included in the day’s educational events. Winners were Alex Laney of Ruston, who won categories for mayhaw cake, mayhaw punch, other baked mayhaw product, mayhaw jams and butter, any other mayhaw product and any other mayhaw dessert, and R.T. (Spec) Sherrill of Arcadia, who won the mayhaw jelly, mayhaw syrup and best of show categories.

"The rapid expansion of the out-of-state mayhaw product sales gives a boost to industry in Louisiana," said Pyzner. "So mayhaw production needs to expand to satisfy the demand."


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