Untold Abundance: The Autumn Olive

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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

CRUST
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
1/3 cup finely ground hazelnuts
1 egg
1 stick butter

PUREE
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.

 
Discussion
  1. Kevin French → in ANTRIM NH
    Apr 16, 2010

    I bought a house with AO growing on it, they bought it for the turkeys. I spent 5 years cutting, hacking and mowing. When I sold the place, I warned the new owners about not letting it get out of control.

    The people I bought the place from must have loved invasives; in addition to the AO they had cypress spurge, rosa rugosa, and burning bush. Not on the list but uncontrolled mint and tansy were growing in several gardens. They’re out there.

  2. Tom Bailey → in Kalamazoo, MI
    Apr 16, 2010

    Southwestern Michigan is over-run with the stuff. AND with garlic mustard.  AND with buckthorn. AND other invasives as well.

    I have a large woodland farm, conservation easements all in possession of the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, and the garlic mustard may be more insidious and invidious than the autumn olive; soon the autumn olive will be blooming, and the sweetest perfume one can imagine will float down the hills on warm late spring evenings and invade our bedroom, and will be so lovely that one can momentarily, at least, think good thoughts about it.  But there is nothing good to think about garlic mustard: it supposedly can be eaten, but only once a year.  And one can make enough for two or three meals by pulling up maybe two plants.  And Roundup doesn’t work very well on it.  One’s perservance is not reward, and one’s age doesn’t stop advancing: pulling gets harder and harder as the years go by.  Each plant one misses spreads some 4000 seeds upon ripening, and those seeds are viable in the earth for up to seven years.  [Fire seems to offer some relief; or terrible drought.  Nothing else.  Nothing. Pulling only keeps it at bay.]

    We have many deer on our property, and they don’t like the stuff any more than I do.

    TCB

  3. Tom Seymour → in Waldo, Maine
    Apr 16, 2010

    Virginia,

    I go to great lengths to locate stands of Japanese knotweed so that I can pick it and eat it fresh and also use as the main ingredient in a wonderful chutney recipe.

    I find that it spreads slowly when left alone, but when, say, the highway department renews a roadside ditch, the knotweed has a heyday.

    Anyway, I figure knotweed needs an apologist and I seem to fit the bill…

    Tom

  4. C J Frankiewicz → in East Clarendon
    Apr 16, 2010

    Where can I find detailed directions on how to eradicate buckthorn, honeysuckle, and wild rose?  cjf

  5. Carolyn Haley → in East Wallingford, VT
    Apr 16, 2010

    I have a Norway maple on my conscience.

    (And a house loaded with windows that birds keep trying to fly through!)

  6. Jon Harris → in Newcastle, Maine
    Apr 16, 2010

    My nemisis is oriental bittersweet. Since my teens I have been roaming forests from Pennsylvania to Maine clipping and yanking the cursed stuff. Once you get an eye for it, you will see it is almost everywhere, and no wonder, birds love it. So do some well meaning people who make decorative wreaths from berry laden stems. Unknowingly, they introduce the vine into their gardens and hedgerows. At that point, it can be easy to pull up and stop the spread, but most people are oblivious to the small plants. Once established, it is quite tedious to entirely remove. A job well beyond most gardeners’ attention spans or ability.

    Clipping provides immediate gratification in the battle against the onslaught, but it sprouts right back from the stump and sends up shoots from the roots, which may range far from the stump. Occasionally, sawing a very old (40 years or so) specimen will blessedly kill it outright. Pulling the vine right out of the ground is effective, but backbreaking, as well as near impossible once the stem has become established. Herbicides work, but are beyond my means outside of a spot application.

    To me, these vines are unsightly parasites, twisting, bending and strangling everything in their path. They may be an economic problem as well. A cut-over wood lot not far from mine may never regenerate into anything resembling a forest, as no tree or shrub can out compete this plague.

    What invasive burdens are others bearing?

  7. Paul Brouha → in Queen Elizabeth Farm, Sutton, VT 05867
    Apr 17, 2010

    Virginia:

    Other species of once (December 1969) recommended “wildlife plantings” (by the USDA Soil Conservation Service or “SCS”) were Tartarian and Amur Honeysuckle. I came across the pamplet (PA-940) while going through old files. As a retired USDA Forest Service biologist, I wonder how much of the “expert advice” we have given (like stocking various fishes all over the world) has had unintended deleterious consequences.

    I have wonderfully vigorous stands of the tartarian honeysuckle and purple loosestrife on the farm here that the SCS cost-shared to plant and that NRCS is now cost-sharing with me to eradicate! I am engaged in trench warfare as (“Dr. Death” with the Roundup) each year. So far all I am able to accomplish (after about five years of pretty intense battles) is a modicum of control. I dont’ think eradication is feasible with current technologies!

    Sincerely Sadder but Wiser,

    Paul Brouha

  8. Myra Ferguson → in Meriden, NH
    Apr 17, 2010

    Our tree farm’s major invasives are buckthorn, multiflora, Japanese barberry, and autumn olive. We have a lovely colony of fringed gentian that pops their beautiful blue flowers up in late September and bloom undaunted through a frost or two. Into this treasured area crept autumn olive. I didn’t notice it until they got knee high. I mowed them the first couple of years after the gentians went to sleep for the winter. However, the olives came back stronger. Thus, I brought in the backhoe and dug each one up and burned them the following spring. They’re gone from that spot, but lurk elsewhere on the property. I’m merely corraling my invasives, but I think I’m having some affect.

  9. Rob Daniels → in Brewster, MA
    Apr 17, 2010

    I’m a native Cape Codder and can offer some perspective on what an area can come to look like after nonnatives have had centuries to settle in. On my parents’ 4 and 1/2 acre plot I’ve noted the following: ailanthus, common privet, 2 types of barberry, vine and bush honeysuckles, buckthorn, multiflora and rugosa rose, oriental bittersweet, Norway and sycamore (pseudoplanatus) maples, garlic mustard, wineberry, knotweed, butterfly bush, burning bush, phragmites, wisteria, and Russian (but not autumn) olive. Fraxinus Excelsior (European ash) is also becoming surprisingly aggressive. Now it appears that some of the more aggressive nonnatives (bittersweet and multiflora rose in particular) are actually pushing out the other invasives.

    Anyone who wishes to see what New England will look like after another hundred years of inaction on this issue should take a look at the Cape. The open land here (what remains) is fairly devoid of ecological or economic function. Thanks for bringing up the issue. It’s more important (dare I say dire?) than most people think.

    Oh, and I forgot about porcelainberry. It resembles grape vine, to which it is related. Beware!

  10. Janet Pesaturo → in Bolton, MA
    Apr 18, 2010

    Autumn olive is an excellent wild edible.  I do not discourage it on my property—I harvest it.  I use the berries to make an excellent jelly.  Friends of mine use them to make delicious fruit leather, sauces, and juices.  They are rich in the phytochemical lycopene, which may help prevent cancer.

    My chickens love the berries.  The berry-laden branches that I throw into the chicken yard cause a veritable feeding frenzy.  The chickens enjoy them from late summer, when they are just beginning to turn red, until they are gone in November.  This is a long season of a wild and nutritious treat for them.

    After the leaves fall, my rabbits love the twigs and bark.  I harvest autumn olive branches for them all winter long.  They like them almost as much as they like apple twigs.

    Maybe someday someone will breed autumn olive to create a less aggressive bush that produces larger, sweeter berries, to appeal to the consumer.  Will that be better?  I’m not so sure.  I figure it’s fine to just harvest them from the wild.  Yes, the plant has changed the habitat, perhaps for the worse, but it’s probably better than a chemically maintained monoculture, which is where most of our food comes from.  The more autumn olive I eat, the less I eat from those monocultures.  It’s local, too!

    One can think of autumn olive as invasive, but one could also think of it as a terrific food plant that requires no chemical assistance to bear well.

  11. Kyle Reynolds → in Pine City, NY
    Apr 18, 2010

    A local nature center recently took up the task of trying to eradicate the Autumn Olive that had overrun the landscape there so it could be restored to its natural environment.  They did an impressive job, cutting most of it out, but are left with unsightly stumps everywhere.  After learning about their project I identified many Autumn Olive plants on my property and new ones growing as well.  I am planning to try and rid myself of them if at all possible.  Any advise on how to proced would be great.

  12. Ann Plourde → in Northfield, VT
    Apr 22, 2010

    I have been involved with invasive control on my property through the WHIP program. It drives me crazy to go to any of the local nurseries and find them selling some of the things I have been breaking my back trying to get rid of! Until invasive species are proibited from sale in the state, I don’t see us making any progress.

  13. Brian J. Mader → in Wisconsin
    Mar 20, 2012

    But how did the wildlife like the Autumn Olives?  Deer, Turkey, Birds & etc??

  14. Benjamin Lord → in Putney, VT
    Sep 14, 2013

    In-laws were visiting and staying at a local hotel. Saw some autumn olives on the roadside and went out to gather with a plastic cup and a plastic bag.  Nabbed about six pounds in 45 minutes. (Slow, I know, but it was a long week and I was feeling sluggish.) Going to try juicing or leathering them. We’ll let you know how it turns out. 

  15. Sarah → in Corinth, VT
    Jan 10, 2014

    Virginia Barlow,
    I live here in Corinth and would be so interested to go and pick the Autumn olive for their delicious fruit in the fall.  Let me know if we can talk more about this.
    Kind Regards, Sarah Corrigan

  16. Jenn → in PA
    Nov 01, 2014

    Has anyone tried baking with whole Autumn Olives in places of cranberries or currants? Was just wondering what the results were.

  17. Kat → in New England
    Oct 29, 2015

    Jenn in PA, I know this is almost a year after your post, but we just happened to make scones with whole autumn olive berries in them, in place of raisins. They were delicious (much less tart than raw).

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