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Wild plants do not surrender their treasures as easily as their cultivated cousins. Wild berries tend to be small, seedy, and scattered widely across the landscape. Anyone who has spent an hour gathering a cup or two of wild strawberries will tell you that their sweetness is hard-won. But the berry of the autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is an exception to this rule. The autumn olive dominates whole landscapes. Its berries can weigh branches to the ground. It is impossible to over-harvest. Its flavor is almost universally liked. And, best of all, hardly anyone knows it is edible. Learn to recognize it, and you can have this bounty practically to yourself.
This remarkable fruiting shrub is not an olive at all. You can spot its silvery leaves along highways and in disturbed sites where conservationists planted it to provide wildlife habitat and control erosion. Conservationists now frown upon this practice because autumn olive, an Asian native, competes aggressively with our native species. As an ecologist, I am careful not to spread this invasive plant. But as a forager, I am tempted by its juicy, red, speckled fruit.
Gathering autumn olives pays great rewards for very little time invested. The fruits occur in such quantity that I simply hold a container under a laden branch and run my fingers along it, allowing the fruit to fall in. I’m always careful to taste the fruit first, however, as the flavor varies greatly from shrub to shrub and over the course of its long season (all of September and October). I find that berries grown in full sun tend to be sweetest, and I have a slight preference for late season fruit. Autumn olive berries taste like nothing else – sweet, tart, and pleasantly astringent.
Once you’ve harvested, you can enjoy the fruits both raw and cooked. I love them raw, but I take care to spit the seeds into a container rather than on the ground to avoid inadvertently spreading the plants. To cook with them, I mash the berries through a colander to separate the flesh from the seeds. As in tomatoes, the red color of the berries comes from lycopene, which is not water soluble, so the pulp separates into two parts – a clear juice and a thick red solid. These can be decanted and used separately, but I am not usually so ambitious. A good place to start cooking with autumn olives is to replace the fruit in a recipe that calls for raspberries, which is where this recipe got its inspiration.
Autumn Olive Tart
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
1/3 cup finely ground hazelnuts
1 stick butter
2 cups of fruit pulp
1/2–1 cup sugar (to taste)
3 tbsp. flour
Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut the butter into the dry ingredients to pea-sized chunks. Beat in the egg and press dough into an 11-inch buttered tart pan. Bake the crust until golden brown, about 12 minutes.
Press autumn olive berries through a strainer or colander to collect fruit pulp. Add sugar to taste. Add the flour, which will thicken the puree and somewhat slow the separation of the juices. Pour the berry puree over the crust. Bake until puree bubbles (about 10 minutes), cool, and serve.