It's true that autumn olives (Elaeagnus umbellata) are invasive, originating from East Asia, but there is no doubt about it: They are too numerous to wipe out at this point and are here to stay! Any native plant pusher I've ever been around has scoffed and talked down about this shrub as if the moment this plant arrived goes down as one of the worst moments in American history, no joke. Lots of folks hate this shrub, and I'm here to tell you why they do and why we understand (but still love them anyway).
When we moved to our farm about 8 years ago, there were 2 acres of pristine mowed grass, with over 50 mature walnut and maple trees to mow around. I think we mowed that once and said, "Never again!" to that waste of time. We figured an area let wild, with trails woven through to enjoy would serve our family and our land better. The wind, birds, deer, and tiny critters did most of the work, bringing in a lot of diverse usuals the first couple of years and along with the vigorous black raspberries, the autumn olives thrived right from the start of our absent mower.
About 5 years in, I realized we were getting more than we would like and I came out with a hatchet, cut them back to the ground, and used the branches to make my first wattle fence. Being that the birds love them, these plants spread fast and without human intervention, they can crowd out other plants, ultimately decreasing the diversity. So, if you plan on keeping these in your landscaping, know that you might want to keep an eye on their spread and consider adding a wattle fence of your own at some point.
After realizing how lovely they were for fencing, I also used the new shoots for baskets, finding their iridescent shimmer perfect for such a project. And if that's not enough, the berries, ripening in late Autumn, are a burst of flavor like no other! It's true, I find that kids like to eat them raw better than most adults I know, enjoying the zing that sucks all the wetness out of your mouth like virtually nothing they will ever find on their plate, but given the amount you'll find out and about on a hike, it's worth getting to know and enjoy this flavorful fruit. And it's worth mentioning that the berries also contain a high level of Vitamins A, C, and E, also with high amounts flavonoids and essential fatty acids. Our kids have even made autumn olive slushies out of just snow and berries, as they do persist into the colder weather for a rare trailside treat amongst the snow, as long as the birds haven't already found them. Seriously, what's not to love?
Identifying Autumn Olive
You will be looking for a shrub, with a widely spread crown, usually about 10 to 16 feet high. They can be found along almost any stretch of road if you look close enough and along the forests edge, but usually not in swampy areas.
The autumn olives (sometimes called Autumnberries) have a very distinct characteristic: There are tiny white spots all over the bright, red, tiny berry. And the leaves also have a trademark trait to them: The underside is always a shiny, iridescent, lighter green color. Even the newer branches have a golden, iridescent shimmer to them. Although they are not numerous at all, the plant does have a few thorns. In the Spring, you'll notice the most beautiful and abundant smell floating through the air when their trumpet, off-white colored flowers bloom. It's a smell so swell and strong that we know, just through an open window in our old farmhouse, that the flowers have opened and are calling in the pollinators, and us, to adore and enjoy!
A plant that might be considered a look-alike is honeysuckle, but once you see them up close, you'll quickly find that anyone paying close attention could not really confuse these two. Honesuckle berries are a solid red, with no trademark white specs that make autumn olives so distinguishable, and the leaves are a softer type, without the silvery underside.
The photo above is shown with ripe red autumn olive berries, as well as ripening yellowish berries.
After sharing a few of the ways we enjoy and incorporate this plant into our farm, I thought I would share our annual autumn olive jam that we look forward to and enjoy with gratitude every year! Eating and wildcrafting mindfully with invasive plants can be fun and nutritious. And don't forget, since we're boiling the the seeds in this recipe, no need to worry about spreading this plant when dumping out your scraps.
Autumn Olive Jam
- 7 cups autumn olives
- 2 1/2 cups water
- 3 under-ripe apples (unpeeled, cored, and chopped)
- 1 1/2 Tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 cup honey
- 1 cup sugar
1. Combine berries, apples, and water in a pot and simmer for about 15 minutes, mashing and stirring often.
2. To separate the large seeds from the desired pulp, put the hot mixture through a food mill or just strain the mixture through cheesecloth, wringing out as much liquid as possible. (It is not uncommon, but not a given, for the liquid to separate into a watery and pulpy layer at this point.)
3. Pour the liquid back to the pot on the stovetop.
4. Add the honey or sugar and lemon juice.
5. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring frequently, especially watching for scorching at the end. Do this for about 20 minutes, or until the liquid sheets off the spoon.
6. Pour into sterilized half-pint jars, leaving appropriate head space.
7. Cover with sterilized lids, tighten lid as jar requires, and process in boiling water bath for 15 minutes.
We use wild apples, which always seem to be sour, with lots of natural pectin and use under-ripe apples whenever we can in a jam, instead of using store-bought pectin. This trick comes in handy and uses apples in a clever way.
We use half honey, half sugar, to get the taste and health of our home-harvested honey without going through a ton of it, but you could use the full amount of either, as you prefer. And if you find the jam a bit more tart than you prefer, just add more sweetener to taste. Happy foraging, friends!
Amanda Jo Boener teaches wildcrafting, foraging and more at The Luna Hill Wild School. With her degree in digital photography, Amanda is a Certified National Geographic Educator and Purdue Master Gardener. Connect with her on Facebook and Instagram, and read all of Amanda’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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