They didn’t name them Mayhaws for no reason. The small red (sometimes yellowish) fruit that tastes somewhat like an apple is a native fruit that is often found growing wild in the low places around the ponds that dot the landscape of northwest Florida. They are called Mayhaws because on the first day of May, you can look for the ground under the tree to begin to be speckled with small red dots. Those little dots provide the flavor for a delicacy known only to us who grew up around here, Mayhaw jelly.
When I was growing up, my dad and brothers would sometimes come home from a fishing trip with a *foot tub filled with the red berries. After I began selling jelly at the blueberry stand, many visitors had never heard of Mayhaw jelly, but of those who had, most had a story and they were all similar: Younger folks remembered going with Grandma or Grandpa and gathering Mayhaws.
They all told of wading the shallow edges of a small pond and some told of carrying along old bed sheets and rounding up the floating fruit on the sheet, depositing it in a bucket or wash tub. Some told of helping Grandma gather large boilers, dishpans, and strainers or colanders or old sheets. then going to the family’s secret place to scoop up the bonus product provided by nature. Old timers know to keep a close eye on the chosen spot as the fruit falls the minute it ripens. On April 30, you will see a few berries turning red. The next day, there will be some on the ground.
When someone tells me they have been Mayhaw picking, I know they don’t know what they are talking about because the tree is so thorny. Long, spiky thorns protect the fruit. You don’t pick them. You pick them up or skim them up off the water.
Through the years, I have had access to the treasures when my husband, Jack, and his friend and fishing buddy, T.E. Segers, would bring home a bucket full of the trashy fruit in a bucket of pond water. Sometimes, his brother, Tom Tison, would bring me a bucket full.
Several years ago, I found an ad for Mayhaw trees in The Progressive Farmer, and I ordered seven, I believe. We got them set out, two at the end of the septic tank drain field, and the others a little farther down. It was seven years before we got the first berry, and then 2 or 3 years before enough were produced for jelly-making, but now most years, we get all we can use and a few for someone else.
Whether I get them from a swampy place or from my own trees, they are a lot of trouble. We put plastic sheets underneath ours, but that doesn’t take the work out of gathering and preparing them to make jelly.
Before Bob Greenlee, my neighbor, died, he and I designed a cage to help in the cleaning process. It is far from perfect, but it is some help in blowing away some of the trash that falls with them, especially the pecan blooms that choose to fall at the same time. Son Glen uses a fan to dry and blow away some of the trash. Using a leaf blower under the trees also helps to blow away some trash and blooms and makes piles of the berries so that they are a little easier to scoop up.
After cleaning out the trash and washing them, the juice making comes next. The small berries that contain almost no pulp and plenty of seeds amaze with the amount of flavor they provide. I put equal amounts of water and berries in a heavy pot, bring to a boil and then cover and simmer from 20 to 30 minutes till soft. Then, I put the cooked berries in a food mill and squeeze as much juice as possible. For perfectly clear jelly, strain the juice. I usually skip this step. Then, it’s time to make the jelly. This is the easy part.
While Mayhaws are cooking, I prepare the jars. If I am making several batches, I put the jars in the dishwasher on the heat dry setting. Put the metal rings and caps in a large boiler. Be sure to put the caps inside the ring and turn them all up so than you can more easily lift them out to seal your product. Bring to a boil and simmer till needed. Having the jar lids boiling hot is important for sealing.
Finally, you can make the jelly. Bring to a boil in a large cooking pot four cups prepared juice, one package fruit pectin such as Sure Jell*. Boil one minute. Add 5 and one-half cups sugar all at one time. A little pat of butter will keep the mixture from foaming. Keep the heat on high, and make sure the mixture is in a full rolling boil that can’t be stirred down.
Cook on high one minute and test for doneness. I use a large stainless-steel spoon and let the jelly slide off the spoon until it breaks from the spoon. Pour into sterilized jars and seal with the hot lids.
Properly sealed, the jelly will keep indefinitely. My family prefers Mayhaw jelly to blueberry jelly or jam, our signature product.
*foot tub definition: a zinc bucket holding one/half bushel. Often used for washing the dirty feet of farmers and their family members. An invaluable piece of farm equipment for holding livestock feed, pea hulls or corn shucks, cutting okra, picking butter beans, etc.