Mayhaws in El Dorado

Mayhaws in El Dorado
Mayhaws in El Dorado

Mayhaws have a reputation as a celebrated delicacy of Southern U.S. cuisine. “From the time I was a little girl we grew up eating mayhaw jelly,” said Elizabeth Eggleston, executive director of the El Dorado Historic District Commission. “It’s a very unique taste, very sweet. They don’t mass produce it like strawberry or grape or some of those, so it’s more of a local and regional jelly.”

“A lot of people in town go to the Mayhaw Festival and buy mayhaw jelly by the case,” continued Eggleston, who is from El Dorado. “And that lasts for the year. Some people still do the canning jars too.”

For people who want berries to make their own jelly, an option is Paul’s Mayhaw Orchard, a local business.

“Many people still have native trees around here,” said Paul McLaughlin, president of the Louisiana Mayhaw Association and owner of Paul’s in El Dorado. “They’ll go out to the river bottoms, they’ll get a tree, bring it back home and plant it."

"They are a really a hearty tree, real tough. They’ll grow just about anywhere.”

Historically, wild mayhaws, which are indigenous to the Southern U.S., have been harvested in places like river bottoms and backwoods sloughs. Boats were often in the process. To get the berries, the limbs of the mayhaw bushes were shaken over the boat and nets or sheets were used to scoop them out of the water.

Commercial and home orchards are now being created with grafted mayhaws. McLaughlin’s orchard is an example of this.

Established in 2003, the orchard is located directly behind his welding shop on Nick Springs Road. He has 100 trees and the varieties include New Majesty, Spectacular, Royal Star, Cajun, Maxine, Royalty, Texas Star and Native. “The bottom part of the tree is a native hawthorn tree,” he said. “You get a different variety on top of it. That’s for an orchard setting.”

He noted the varieties taste different too. “The Spectacular are dark deep red and are the sweetest berries with the highest sugar content,” he said. “The Royal Star are tart. And the Maxine are the middle of the road between sweet and tart.”

McLaughlin said he usually harvests in May hence where mayhaws get their name.

“After harvesting we freeze the berries to have them for sale year-round because people like to make jelly to give as gifts,” he said. “We also keep mayhaw jelly for purchase along with pepper jelly made with mayhaw juice that is a big hit around Christmas.”

The versatile fruit can be used for everything from jam to wine.

McLaughlin has had to be resilient in his efforts with the orchard. He planted 200 trees the first time. “I grafted them in the field, all kinds of mayhaw trees,” he said. “And the deer came and wiped them out in two nights. It threw me off a couple of years.”

After this initial try, he came back and grafted trees in a nursery situation where they could get the height on them until the bark toughened up so the deer wouldn’t bother them. “Then I planted them,” he said. “It’s still a young orchard. It will produce a lot of mayhaws when we finally get it going.”

“It’s hard to grow mayhaw trees further north than out here,” he continued. “In Camden they have them in river bottoms but now with this new variety (Maxine) doesn’t bear until June. And mayhaws usually bear in May. The Maxine are disease resistant to fire blight and are a really good berry that’s the coming thing right now.”

Witnessing a friend’s success with pecan orchards initially sparked the idea to start an orchard of his own. He began researching the possibility and one day, while working at the home of Charlie Murphy, (of Murphy Oil) McLaughlin shared his idea of a mayhaw orchard. When he finished, Murphy asked him if he had started the orchard yet. “And I thought, “Well I guess I better do it,” he said. “This man is pretty sharp!”

McLaughlin then got involved with the Louisiana Mayhaw Association. He’s been involved for 12 years and has served as president the last two. “I’ve learned a lot about the business,” he said. “I would like to start an Arkansas Mayhaw Association.:"

"The jelly itself promotes the fruit. Once you taste it you will want some more.”

Many festivals in the South highlight the berry including the South Arkansas Mayhaw Festival in El Dorado. The event is headquartered at the Newtown House Museum and is scheduled for May 5 this year.

“We have the house open so you get some history, and bluegrass music, which is a part of Southern culture. You get the cultural aspect and the arts plus some Arkansas history,” said Patrick Hotard, executive director of the South Arkansas Historical Foundation (SAHF), which produces the festival. “It’s also a street fair so you can just have general fun. We sell our own mayhaw jelly and we have museum tours.”

The Newton House Museum is a Greek- revival two-story home from the mid-1800s. It is the only house open to the public in El Dorado that was built before the Civil War.

The annual festival serves as a fundraiser for SAHF and is reminder of the pioneer history of the town. “The object was to have something on the grounds,” said Hotard.

“It’s a part of the community which allows us to incorporate different things into a one day event.”

There are four mayhaw trees behind the museum and some of the berries are used in the jelly sold at the festival. “It’s a local variety so its fruit is something that has been picked and used, specifically for jelly, for a long time,” said Hotard. “It’s a local favorite product.”

The recipe used for the festival’s jelly is from a recipe from Rachel McKinney, who was from a prominent El Dorado family and helped start the festival in town.

“I vividly remember Rachel McKinney as the organizer of the festival,” said Eggleston, who served on the Mayhaw Festival Board. “Rachel always wore pink. She loved pink. And she was instrumental in keeping the group together each year to produce the Mayhaw Festival. She always wanted it to be centered around the John Newton House to include the history of the Newton family and their contribution to El Dorado and Union County.”

Eggleston said the tradition of making the jelly is indigenous to the area and can be traced back to Native Americans. “It’s part of our culture,” she said.

“I don’t want it to be a dying art. That’s why I want to stay involved. So that the younger generation will know the importance of the mayhaw berries to the region.”