A brief informative essay describing how mayhaws are harvested for making jelly.
Essay II Revision One: Mayhaw Picking
Sloshing through knee-deep water with mud sucking hungrily at feet, dagger-like thorns poking, prodding, and gouging at skin and the scanty protection of clothing, warm breath mists in the air. In the pale glow of the pre-dawn twilight, a glimmer of blood-red or pale golden yellow beckons suggestively while infuriatingly whining mosquitoes like little kamikaze pilots armed with syringes and bad attitudes assail pale, exposed flesh at neck, face and hands. This isn’t a tale of lost pirate treasure, but something far more laborious and risky: picking mayhaws.
Mayhaw is a species of hawthorn, and like most species of hawthorn, it has thorns. Typically an inch and a half long and needle-sharp, these thorns grow every few inches along the branches, hiding beneath the cover of the leaves as if just waiting for a careless hand to grab a limb. Mayhaw trees thrive in wet places, preferring shallow, slow-moving water where the competition for real-estate is less fierce and a convenient means of spreading their seeds is ready at hand: the seed-baring berries fall into the water to be carried away by the current. The thick, dark mud under the water is a nutrient-rich morass packed with decaying plant and animal matter, home to crawfish, snakes, snapping turtles, alligators, and mosquitoes.
Mayhaws bloom in February (or sometimes early March if winter lasts longer than usual), and the best time to look for patches of mayhaw trees are when they are in bloom. Mayhaw blossoms are small white flowers a little bit larger than a dogwood blossom and produce little red or gold berries about the size of a cherry after being in bloom for about two weeks or so. Those berries can be used to make everything from candy to wine and are especially sought-after for the juice.
Ideal locations to check for stands (or ‘patches’) of mayhaw trees will have one to three feet of slow-moving water. Hunting leases, small river branches, and swampy marshes are all likely candidates. They will often grow along the sides of electrical high-lines or pipe-lines, particularly where there is low ground. These patches are good gauges to use to tell when the time is right for picking, but they don’t make very good places to actually pick. If they can been seen from the road or highway without leaving the car, then lots of other folks have seen them too and competition for them may be fierce.
A mayhaw picker needs certain equipment and supplies in order to pick mayhaws effectively, and a detailed list will be different for every picker. That being said, local mayhaw pickers in Newton county, Texas, often carry many of the same basics. Insect repellent, for example, is something almost every mayhaw picker will desperately need, and should be considered the most important thing NOT to forget at home. Malaria and West Nile Virus are even less pleasant than being hounded by blood-thirsty insects all day long, and can cost a careless mayhaw picker not only time and money but his health, as well. Wild hogs like to feast on mayhaws and effortlessly ignore both thorns and mosquitoes with their thick, tough hides, but they will smell insect repellent from quite a distance and give the mayhaw picker wearing it a wide berth.
A mayhaw picker will also need about a dozen plastic five-gallon buckets. For a single mayhaw picker, picking twenty five gallons of mayhaws in an hour is an unusually productive day…but he will usually be picking mayhaws for five to six hours at a time. Brightly colored buckets are preferred, since they are easier to find when left behind to mark the path. A few holes drilled around the bottom edge with a quarter inch drill bit will allow water to run out of them, making them lighter and easier to carry through all the muck and mud while letting them fill with water when set down, preventing them from floating away.
Bottled water is also a key supply to bring plenty of, providing a way to keep the mayhaw picker well hydrated while working. The day may start out around fifty degrees or so, with the picker’s teeth chattering while standing knee-deep in icy water, but the day warms up fast and the picker warms up faster, especially once he gets to work. Other gear usually brought along include a revolver (preferably loaded with 4-10 shotgun ammunition) for use in fending off snakes or signaling for help in an emergency.
A mayhaw picker will also want to wear old clothes that are okay to get wet, muddy, or torn (because they WILL get wet, muddy, and torn) and old tennis shoes. Many novices are tempted to wear boots, but boots tend to fill with water and make slogging through the mud even more difficult than it already is. Experienced Mayhaw pickers dress in layers, knowing they will grow warmer and warmer as the day goes on, and any clothes they aren’t wearing can be left hanging from thorny branches to mark the way they came.
While this is all one really needs to go pick some mayhaws, picking them up off the ground or out of the water by hand is slow, tedious, dangerous, backbreaking work, and there are more effective means. One of those means will require a pole of wood or some light, strong material some ten to fifteen feet long and tipped on one end with a firmly-attached steel hook. With this, fresh, ripe berries can be shaken from the trees. Without it, the mayhaw picker is limited to the older berries that have already fallen. Many of them will be bruised, rotten, or partially eaten already.
Speaking of more effective means to pick mayhaws, those who do so in the swamps and river bottoms of south-east Texas and western Louisiana often use mesh baskets taped or nailed to the end of a broom stick to dip the berries right out of the water without undue strain on their backs. Using this method, however, a mayhaw picker must be mindful that every leaf, twig, crawfish, snake, or bit of trash scooped up and poured into a bucket along with the sought-after berries will have to be removed before those berries can be put to any productive use.
After locating a mayhaw patch that is ripe for the picking, the industrious mayhaw picker will gather and double-check his supplies and equipment, load them into his truck along with all the buckets he could possibly need, and get plenty of rest. His work-day will begin before dawn to avoid the mid-day heat. Snakes and mosquitoes tend to be less active in the cold mornings too. Around noon, he will head for home with his hard-won prize to cull them (removing rotten or badly bruised berries, twigs, leaves, and other detritus) before selling them that afternoon to the day-shift plant workers on their way home.
This has been a brief summary of mayhaw picking, aiming to educate folks about a part of local culture and the many concerns faced by those who bring those little red and gold berries out of the swamps for us. What a mayhaw is, where they grow, when they are ripe to be picked, the tools and supplies needed to pick them, a few of the harvesting methods used, and some of the many dangers he will face have been mentioned, but there is much more to this story that is beyond the scope of this brief overview. The next time you savor the unique flavor of a jar of mayhaw jelly, spare a moment to reflect on those willing to take on such laborious, risky work to fetch such ambrosia to the kitchen table.