The descriptions are scary: “invasive exotic gone feral”, “noxious weed”, “persistent”, “invasive”, “out competes and displaces”. The reality? As with many “bad” (substitute any of the above adjectives) weeds, that’s a judgement call on our part. Often, this judgement is based seeing a plant that is strong and prolific, decide it’s a good idea to cultivate it to prevent/help with another problem (erosion, bugs, etc.), plant it everywhere and BINGO! It goes from being a good thing to making the top ten on the eradication list.
How it Got Here
Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellate, member of the Oleaster family) follows this pattern. It’s native to Asia including the Himalayan region, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, northern China and Japan and was initially introduced into North America as an ornamental plant sometime around 1830. The tree was used to attract wildlife; provide sturdy hedgerows and windbreaks (small thorns on its spurs deters animals from trespassing); as a nurse tree to prepare the ground for black walnut trees; control erosion and fix nitrogen in the soil. Public works horticulturists planted it along highway embankments and on reclaimed strip-mined land. The seeds, which are contained inside its red fruits or drupes, are widely distributed by birds and foxes. Not bad for a plant, but these very same traits put it on the federal invasive species list.
Eradication programs have been underway for years, but thanks to the birds and the prolific fruiting, this hasn’t been successful. Once established, it grows back from the roots when cut or mowed and thrives in poor soils. It produces a dense shade that reduces the light for neighboring plants that need a lot of sun. One shrub/tree can produce 200,000 seeds and is a bird magnet.
What It Looks Like
It grows to a height of 8 to 16 feet and has leaves with silvery scales on the undersides. In the Spring, numerous fragrant, silvery white funnel-shaped flowers appear. Like the Linden tree, the sound of humming bees can be heard several feet away. When the wind blows, this lovely fragrance drifts across the landscape. Here in Central Virginia, August is when the small red berries with streaks of silver appear.
When they first ripen, they tend to be sour. The longer they ripen, the sweeter they become. I like to harvest the early ones for their more astringent/sour properties. Because of the thorns, I find it easier to first cut off the branches, then pull the fruit off (trust me, a little pruning doesn’t harm this tree!) The fruit and seeds are edible and can be used in jam, jellies and preserves as well as eaten raw. Berries, seeds and leaves are edible.
The USDA has been looking into organic farming possibilities as it requires little or no fertilizer and is easily harvested by hand or machine. Each tree can produce 9-35 pounds of berries.
The berries contain high levels of vitamins A, C; minerals such as phosphorous, magnesium, calcium, potassium and iron as well as essential fatty acids and bioflavonoids. It is also rich in the carotenoid lycopene, which has exhibited possibilities as a deterrent to heart disease and cancers of the prostate, cervix, the gastrointestinal tract, and possibly ovarian cancer. (The lycopene content in the autumn olive fruit is 17 times higher than that in a tomato.) Other carotenoids the berries contain are B-carotene, phytoene, and a- and b-cryptoxanthin. The fruit also contains malic acid like the crab apple and when fully ripe has glucose and fructose present. The berries can be frozen and used later.
Traditional Medicine Uses
The flowers are used as a cardiac tonic and are astringing and stimulating. The seeds are said to be good for coughs, and the oil from the seeds is used to treat afflictions of the lungs. The berries can be dried and stored to use in fruit teas or tisanes. The flowers can also be made into a tisane with the leaves. As little research has been done on this tree yet, it is advised that women do not take it when pregnant, as there is insufficient data.
Below is one of my favorite recipes: Autumn Olive Fruit Leather. It’s easy, low sugar and only contains two ingredients. A much healthier treat than Fruit Roll-ups. Enjoy!
3 cups washed and picked Autumn Olive Berries
1 tble. Raw honey
- Turn on oven to lowest temperature: 170° (if yours goes lower than 170°, use that temperature)
- Place berries in saucepan and turn on low heat for 5 minutes, crushing the berries gently with a spoon as they warm up. Continue doing this for another 5 – 10 minutes.
- Heat another 5 minutes. At this point they should be fairly liquid with seeds floating around.
- Place the food mill over a bowl and pour the sauce into the food mill to separate seeds. Scrape sauce off food mill into bowl.
- Put 1 tble of honey into the sauce and stir well.
- Line the baking sheet with the parchment and pour sauce into the middle of the parchment sheet. Tilt pan to spread evenly. (You are aiming for about 1/8-inch thickness).
- Place in oven and bake for 2-4 hours (my convection oven did it in 2 ½ hours. You could also use a dehydrator with non-stick sheets.)
- Cool, peel and enjoy!