Sunday, November 6, 2011

Autumn Olives 2011: Where are they?

speckled, ripe berries
Autumn olives (Eleagnus umbellata) are a common edible invasive species found in New England, growing from southeastern Ontario down to Florida and as far west as Arkansas and Wisconsin. It was brought from Asia to North America in 1830 for cultivation as an ornamental plant. In Massachusetts and Connecticut, up until 2006, it was commonly promoted as roadside erosion control shrubbery, wild bird food and cover, and frequently planted along roadsides and distributed to homeowners for landscaping and windbreaks. Currently, importation, propagation, and sale of autumn olive bushes is prohibited in many states.

The bush is spread by the seeds from the many berries, often consumed by birds. Autumn olive is a drought tolerant shrub that grows in full or partial sun in a variety of soil and moisture conditions along open woodlands, fields, grasslands, industrial areas, and disturbed areas. The bush has the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil and grow quickly, thereby shading out competition. Cutting the bush will not kill it, pulling up the seedlings is the only eco-friendly method of eradication.

flower clusters

The autumn olive shrub can grow to 12 feet (3.7m) tall, and are often found in large clusters taking over an area. The alternate leaves are 1-3 inches (2.5-8 cm) long and egg or lance shaped. The tops of the leaves are dark green, and the undersides are densely covered in silvery scales. Autumn olives are often the first plants to sprout leaves in spring, and produce copious amounts of flowers arranged in bunches from the leaf axils. The flowers are light yellow or creamy white tubes that open to four petals, and are fragrant. Each flower will produce a single green berry speckled with silver scales. The berry bears a single, oblong, soft seed that is edible, and ripens to red in late summer or early autumn.

When ripe, the berries can taste either very astringent, or pleasantly sweet. Kids love that puckeringly tart flavor, and it is slightly reminiscent of ripe tomatoes. We have been eating them for years, and the berries are a super wild food. They contain outstanding amounts of lycopene, which is good for your joints. We use the berries in several recipes, like jam, jelly, fruit leather, wine, and ketchup. The berries freeze really well, which is great since they are usually so abundant.

Autumn olive ketchup
Which brings us to this year and the absence of berries in our favorite places. There have been several weather related conditions combining to destroy many of the berries. The spring was rather wet and late, then the summer was very dry. During the dry summer, many plants lost their fruits as they became stressed from the drought, like wild plums, grapes, and the autumn olives. When the deluge of rain came from Hurricane Irene to the northeast, it was too late for many plants, and some even toppled over once the ground became too saturated for the plant's roots to hold on. Any berries that had survived the dry summer now absorbed massive amounts of water and split open within a few days, and attracted bees and ants to the shrubs. We had a very difficult time to gather one gallon of berries that were not mushy, split messes, when we can usually gather several 5-gallon buckets worth of berries in an hour. So this year, no jelly, wine, fruit lather, or berries to freeze from our most abundant and favorite wild edible. Here's to next season!


JacLynn said...

Great article, love the pictures. I will be on the look out for this plant in the furture! Thanks!

forageporage said...

I got no where near the berries I had hoped for this year, either. I did notice that many of the bushes that had no berries at all, instead had a lot of new growth branches. Cheers to next year, as well!

Trout Caviar said...

You hit on a really key point about wild harvests everywhere, every year: they're not a given, and they're much, much more susceptible to environmental conditions than cultivated crops. Some years we have great chanterelle, black trumpet, plum, blackberry picking; sometimes not. You can never bank on it. It's what keeps it interesting--and sometimes frustrating! Great reading here--thanks. Forage on- Brett

Ellen Zachos said...

These are usually so abundant in NE PA that I can make wine, jelly, and a few loaves of bread. This year I found ONE bush with fruit, and the taste was disappointing. I had a little better luck visiting my parents in NH, but nowhere near the quantity I'm accustomed to. It actually makes me feel a little better to know I'm not alone.

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