Thursday, September 23, 2010

Autumn Olives

Autumn Olive berries are a favorite in our house, and we introduce this invasive edible to everyone we know in hopes that they will also enjoy and gather lots of them. Our invasive plant book, "Invasive Plants: Guide to Identification and the Impacts and Control of Common North American Species" by Sylvan and Wallace Kaufman lists pros and cons of the autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) bush. Autumn olive is also listed on the USDA National Invasive Species website. Problems associated with the plant include it's tendency to grow densely and outcompete all other native plants in an area, and the plant's ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, therefore changing soil composition. One benefit is the fruit, which can stay on the bush into the wintertime, and another is the cover provided for wildlife. We do often see roadsides or old fields completely filled with the silvery autumn olive foliage. The plant was introduced in 1830 from China, Korea, and Japan as an ornamental plant. It reproduces easily because it makes an incredibly large amount of single-seeded berries, and can survive well in poor soil.

In spring, the plant produces it's silvery leaves very early, one of the first shrubs in our area of southeast Connecticut to show green. The leaves are arranged alternately along the speckled stem, shaped like long ovals, and are toothless and leathery. The undersides of the leaves are distinctly silvery, allowing you to identify autumn olives from a distance. In mid-spring the plant produces an abundance of flower clusters hanging from the leaf axils. The flowers have four petals that join at the base to form a tube, are light yellow or white, and fragrant. After the flowers die, tiny, dark green berries will start to form.

It takes all summer, and sometimes part of the autumn for the berries to ripen to red. I have read some accounts of how the ripening season has become earlier and earlier for the berries, and we have found an occasional, odd bush fully ripe in early August. These bushes all have seem to have distinct personalities, and each bush has it's own taste, ripening time, and amount of berries produced. Most bushes ripen in late September, and berries on a bush will taste sweeter later in the autumn. Inside each berry is a single, soft, oval seed that can be eaten without any ill effects, or spit out.

The taste of this silver-speckled red berry is sometimes hard to describe. Kids always love it because of the sourness, and if adults give it a chance, they like it too. The initial flavor is sometimes mouth-puckeringly astringent, then you get the fruity burst reminiscent of currants or peaches. Autumn olive berries contain up to 17 times the lycopene, an anti-oxidant, commonly found in tomatoes. They also contain vitamins A, C, and E. The berries are very easy to pick, and often grow in stunning quantities on a single shrub.

We use the berries to make jam and fruit leather, and the whole berries freeze surprisingly well for use in wintertime oatmeal breakfasts. We have also made a peasant wine from the berries. We have observed some odd characteristics of the berries while processing them. If sent through the food mill to remove seeds while raw, the sweet, red pulp will separate from a translucent, sour, pink juice. Robert made a jelly from the juice, and used the unsweetened pulp to make fruit leather.

More Photos Of Autumn Olive Click Here.


Teresa said...

I always say they taste like Sweet Tarts. The kids love them.

Kimberly Emilia said...

so excited! just found some ripe ....just over the hill from my house. Very tasty!