Have you heard of autumn olives? Do they grow wild near you? Did you know they could help save your life?
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 18, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Love at First Sight
The autumn olive is a shrub planted decades ago by the US Forest Service for erosion control and food for wildlife. Elaeagnus umbellata, goes unnoticed (to me) throughout the year until it is full of reddish-orange, silver-speckled berries in October, along country roads in our area of southwestern Virginia.
I didn't understand why there weren't truckloads of people out picking the autumn olives while we were foraging last week, like they do with wild blackberries, raspberries, morels and apples at other times of the year. With the profusion of berries, there was plenty for man and beast. The berries looked like cranberries at first, but were about the size of currants. They readily came off the stems, so it didn't take long to get a bucketful, and they were free from pests. The berry skins were just firm enough not to break open like some berries, so they weren't messy.
I thought autumn olive shrubs would be perfect grown along our back property line as treats for my family and the wild critters (maybe they would leave my veggies and apples alone), as well as for a privacy hedge. I was so excited about this perfect plant that I wanted to research it and locate a nursery to buy at least a dozen to start.
A Closer Look
The autumn olive is also known as autumn berry, silverberry, aki-gumi, and oleaster. The plant is native to China, Korea, and Japan. It was brought to the United States in 1830 to be used for wildlife habitats, and as an ornamental. It is a member of the honeysuckle family, and there are no known poisonous look-a-like plants.
Depending on the cultivar, the autumn olive can grow up to 20 feet tall, with about the same spread. It is a deciduous shrub with elliptical, lance-shaped, leaves that are silver underneath, with smooth edges. The flowers, that bloom in early spring, are pale yellow and fragrant. The berries are larger and more abundant when grown in the sun.
The autumn olive prefers well-drained, poor, sandy soil and full sun, but will tolerate some shade. It prevails after a fire, returns stronger and bushier after cutting, and is drought tolerant after established. The plant roots are like that of a legume, in that they have nitrogen fixing nodules and are used in orchards as companion, or "nurse", plants that help enrich the soil and protect black walnut and fruit tree seedlings until they are established.
The more I learned about the plant, the more impressed I became. It does well to Zone 3. The autumn olive shrub propagates easily from cuttings, and the seeds sprout well after stratification. It takes up to 6 years for the bush to mature enough to produce berries if grown from seed. There are several varieties of autumn olive grown in the United States, some with thorns, or spikes. The variety we picked berries from had no thorns.
The most impressive information I found about autumn berries was their nutrition. The red color in the berry is due to a carotenoid called lycopene which has antioxidant properties. Lycopene has been attributed with lowering the risks of cardiovascular disease and prostate cancer (see the blue sidebar at right for nutritional values). The seeds are used medicinally in cough stimulants and for pulmonary problems.
A Downward Glance
Because the autumn olive is so prolific, hardy, and improves the soil so well, it displaces native plants requiring poor soils. They are listed as an "invasive plant" in many states, and considered "noxious" in West Virginia, where they were initially used for strip coal mine soil reclamation plantings. Australia and Canada list autumn olives as invasive as well. For maps on the invasiveness of this plant, see the USDA NRCS pages. Also, consult Invasive Species organization for additional information and photos to identify the plant.
A View of the Future
There is an ongoing battle over the autumn olive plant between the nature conservationists wishing to keep our native plants intact, and those speculating the potential for a hardy organic, and pest-free, cash crop needing no fertilizer, or special attention.
Regardless of the negative attributes, the autumn olive has many positive ones for people like me who forage wild fruits and berries. The autumn olives can be left for nearly two weeks at room temperature without spoiling and any unripened berries will mature. They may be eaten raw, or cooked and used to top pancakes, breads and cakes, or made into a pudding. The fruit can be used in place of other berries in recipes (see the blue sidebar at right for autumn berry recipes) and my family liked the jam I made. The seeds are soft enough to be chewed (fibrous), and can be eaten along with the fruit without ill effects. The berries can be dried with the seeds for crunchy snacking, or made into fruit leathers which concentrates their flavor.
Picking, rinsing, and draining my foraged autumn berries.
I won't be planting autumn berry shrubs in my backyard as long as I have free public access to pick the plentiful berries along our country roadways. In a small, personal way, I feel I am helping control the spread of the plant by harvesting the berries, while I benefit from the healthy properties of the fruit. I have added the autumn olive, or autumn berry, to our list of local forage foods, and will mark my calendar for harvest dates for years to come.
Combine berries and sugar in a large saucepan. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Cook rapidly to gelling point. As mixture thickens, stir frequently to prevent sticking. Remove from heat. Skim foam if necessary. Ladle hot jam into hot jars, leaving 1/4" headspace. Adjust two-piece caps. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling-water canner. Yield: about 3 pints.
Note: If seedless jam is preferred, crushed berries may be heated until soft and pressed through a sieve or food mill; measure pulp and proceed as above.
Autumn Olive Jam
This recipe was found in Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants. 1994. pg 288.
This jam is quick to make and is an all-purpose topping and spread.
16 cups autumn olive berries 1 cup agar flakes
Put the autumn olives and agar in a large saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring often. The berries soon release enough liquid to cook in their own juice. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the agar is completely dissolved, stirring often. Pass the berries through a food mill or sieve with holes just small enough to strain out the seeds. Chill and serve. Makes 2 quarts
I was a serious organic gardener and composter 30 years ago, then my life took me in a new direction with kids and career. I am just now returning to gardening and learning new techniques, and loving every minute of it. I hope to share my experiences with you from my shady yard.