May 6, 2012 / 7:21 PM / 5 years ago

Mayhaw emerges from US swamps as cultivated fruit delicacy

* Bright red fruit traditionally made into jelly

* More orchards planted in US South as popularity grows

By Suzi Parker

EL DORADO, Ark., May 6 (Reuters) - Food lovers in the U.S. South, get ready for the mayhaw.

The small, bright red fruit that resembles a cherry is quickly becoming a sought-after delicacy in the region, where it has made its way from the swamp to the cultivated fields of commercial orchards in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas.

El Dorado, a town 100 miles (161 km) south of Little Rock on the Louisiana state line, rolled out the red carpet for the mayhaw at the 20th Annual Mayhaw Festival and Bluegrass Jamboree this weekend.

Jay Helm, the festival's chairman, said the event has gotten bigger every year, with people driving from all over to buy jelly made from the fruit.

Nurseries are offering more mayhaw trees to customers in stores and online, and cooks are using more mayhaws in sauces and desserts such as jelly squares, said P. Allen Smith, a lifestyle and gardening expert based in Little Rock.

"The mayhaw is stepping out in the limelight," Smith said. "The interest in regional foods have helped with the mayhaw's popularity."

For the South, the mayhaw has cultural, historical and horticultural value.

Before the mayhaw was cultivated in backyard and commercial orchards, the only place it could be found was in backwoods wetlands and on swampy river banks. Some people still travel by boat in late winter looking for the mayhaw tree's white blooms. Once spotted, the trees are tagged with orange tape. Harvesters then return during the spring rains.

"They shake the trees, and the fruit falls in the water," said Elizabeth Eggleston, executive director of the El Dorado Historic Commission. "It's gathered up in nets and put in buckets.

Eggleston's family for decades has enjoyed mayhaw jelly, which is translucent pink in color. She remembers growing up eating the jelly served on warm biscuits and tea cakes.

With the mayhaw's newfound popularity, the possibilities outside of jelly seem endless. Growers like Paul McLaughlin are producing everything from ice cream to wine, albeit in very small batches.

MORE ORCHARDS

McLaughlin started his mayhaw orchard outside El Dorado in 2003. It now features about 100 trees with several varieties like the Spectacular and the Royal Star, each with a different taste - some sweet, some more tart.

McLaughlin and some helpers shake the trees to harvest the fruit. Last spring, he sold 150 gallons (568 litres) of the fruit and numerous grafted seedlings to people wanting to start their own orchards.

"Once you taste the jelly you are sold," McLaughlin said. "People immediately fall in love with the mayhaw. That's why you're seeing more orchards and people wanting trees for their own backyards."

McLaughlin, a member of the Louisiana Mayhaw Association, hopes to create a similar group in Arkansas so that the mayhaw's popularity will spread. Many Arkansans are still unaware that the fruit even exists, he said.

"We hope to change that as the festival gets bigger," Eggleston said.

For weeks before the festival, volunteers make mayhaw jelly to sell for the benefit of the South Arkansas Historical Foundation. Last year, more than 700 jars were sold.

"You have to get here before noon to get a jar," Eggleston said. "People buy it by the cases."

The festival is held around the Newton House Museum, an antebellum house with mayhaw trees in the backyard, located just off the town's quaint square. At the foundation offices next door, jelly jars sit in cases and the freezer is stocked full of frozen mayhaws.

Helm said when he moved to El Dorado from Oklahoma, the mayhaw was a mystery. At breakfast at the local diner each morning, the waitress put pre-packaged jelly on his table but gave other customers jelly from a jar kept behind the counter.

"I found out it was mayhaw jelly, but you had to be special to get it,' he said.

After a few years, the jar suddenly appeared on his table.

"I knew then I had been accepted," Helm said. (Additional reporting by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Eric Beech)

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