I have a confession: I love Autumn Olives. Love. With a capital L. Just this one simple statement is enough to draw the ire of folks from all walks of life. From atheists to the religious, democrat to republican, most unite under the banner of hatred for this shrub. And not without some merit. There are entire fields swallowed by this plant. Old fields so choked with Autumn Olives that making your way through might resemble a scene in a movie where a man whacks his way through thick jungle with a machete. But despite this plants tendency to like growing everywhere, I find a spot in my heart to absolutely love it.
Autumn olive in Botanese is called Elaeagnus umbellata. Other common names include: Autumnberry, Twinklyberry, and I call them Oversprayberry for the way they look as if a painter just slightly missed the entire plant with his paint sprayer. These shrubs originated in east Asia from the Himalayas to Japan. Commonly growing from 3-20 feet, it has alternate leaves from 2-3 inches long and 1 inch wide with a silvery spots over the entirety of the leaves. The plant commonly has thorns, but I notice this to be a feature of younger plants rather than the older plants. The top of the leaves are a greenish gray or a grayish green. Whichever way tickles your fancy. The bottoms are silvery gray. It bears an abundance of small yellow tubular flowers that occur in clusters of 5-10. They smell absolutely wonderful. Like too damned wonderful. Imagine going to heaven and finding that heaven is in fact just unbearably nice. That’s how Autumn olive flowers smell.
Autumn Olive is an invasive species(if you didn’t know that already) that was introduced to the USA in 1830. Its primary introduction purpose was for ornamental reasons. Before our common era of making assumptions on a plants “native” boundaries, people planted things because of their usefulness to ourselves, and our animal neighbors. Autumn Olives are no different. From the 1940’s into the 1970’s an absolute bonanza of these plants were sold or given out by soil conservation districts throughout the country. The vast majority of what we see is the offspring of a variety called ‘Cardinal’ that was known for its prolific red berries.
After the introduction of the idea of ‘Invasion Biology’(which quite honestly seems to be an invasive idea swiffering through the minds of the public) people’s attitudes toward ‘non-native’ species started to change. This once beloved species that helped stop erosion and fed the birds slowly turned into a full blown monster that was one of the top domestic threats in our country. People’s farms started having too many of these bushes and when they cut them down to rid their farm of this pest plant, it just resprouted from the roots.
Is there any good that this plant offers, or is it all negative as the top search results on google would have you believe? Obviously many of you have read the title of my blog and therefore are aware, at least peripherally, of the edibility of these berries. Another benefit, although some would disagree, is that this plant pumps nitrogen into the soil, which can lead to a doubling of the growth of plants growing in its proximity. A fact that can lead to its undoing which I will discuss later in the blog. So if this plant is edible and it helps the plants around it grow, what exactly is the issue here? The issue, at least with most, is that this plant is a more prolific grower than other plants. There are certainly places in which this plant is very numerous, but never, I daresay, to the complete and utter absence of any and all species in its presence. The single most controversial thought I have about invasive species is that invasive species are only harmful insomuch as we believe they are.
As an avid promoter of the Eat the Invader movement, I cannot possibly pass up the opportunity for such an incredibly nutritious and abundant food source. We are often told to eat berries for our health, and I agree wholeheartedly, but I disagree that we should only be getting these berries from the grocery store. Especially since most people, at least near me, live within walking distance of a heavily fruiting Autumn Olive bush. It frustrates me to no end that there are people buying blueberries from South America while there are are bushes loaded with Autumn Olives right outside his or her door. This not only speaks to the wastefulness of our culture but also to the lack of awareness we have as modern humans. Our ancestors would never have let such an abundant and healthful food source go to waste.
Autumn Olives are unbelievably nutritious. So nutritious in fact that it makes one wonder how this fruit is not in every store already. First of all, and I know that this is repeated ad nauseam, but Autumn olives contain a crapload of Lycopene. How much is a crapload you ask? 5-15 times the Lycopene of an equal amount of tomatoes. What is so great about Lycopene? Lycopene is a carotenoid that is responsible for giving many fruits and vegetables their red colors. Also a powerful antioxidant offering many health benefits, here is a quote from Dr. Andrew Weil.
Men be sure to take note: lycopene is incredibly good for keeping your prostate healthy. If for no other reason you should add this to your diet seasonally. The high amount of vitamins A, C, and E should also grab your attention. Not only are these berries healthful, but they are also extremely flavorful. Perfectly tart enough to not be another boring super sweet addition to the palate.
Autumn Olives can be prepared in a number of ways, the easiest of which is to just grab them off the bush and eat handful after handful right then and there. If the tart flavor is a little much for you, this berry can be turned into a delicious fruit leather and you can add a touch of honey to sweeten it up. They can be juiced, or added to smoothies, and much of the tartness will be hidden that way. If finally you still don’t enjoy the flavor then I recommend making jam. I do not know a single soul that does not like Autumn Olive jam. It is perfectly balanced in it tart/sweet ratio. If you do go this route, I recommend using a sugar that still retains some of its nutrients like maple sugar or turbinado.
Harvesting these berries is as easy as possible. There are two methods that I use for harvest regularly without fail. Picking berries one by one is an absolute waste of time and I’m sure you use more calories than you gain if you try this method. Depending on what the eventual product will be I change up my harvest method. If what I desire is to have a berries to eat out of hand, or to add to yogurt, wild rice, etc. then I predominately use what we lovingly refer to as “The Fondle Method”. This method requires you to reach back on a loaded branch and with a cupped hand you do the tapping-my-fingers-because-I’m-bored movement, but upside down. If performed with enough vigor this should result in a handful of berries and only a few leaf fragments that can quickly be removed. Done over and over again you can gather a few gallons an hour of very clean, and ready to eat berries.
The second method of harvest that my family utilizes is the easiest method to gather giant amounts of Autumn Olives, but the result is often strewn with leaves and twigs and any number of dried up berries. This method I have given no name, you just put a tarp under the branches and shake like hell. We use this method when making jam or juice. There is less pressure to have the leaves and twigs removed because that stuff will all be strained out anyway. Using this method of harvest one can gather gallons of berries in minutes, depending on the bush and how loaded it is.
One of the best things about Autumn Olive, is that time of harvest. It is often possible to harvest these berries into December. In Northern Michigan. The bulk of these berries will start to ripen in early September and will hang on the bushes getting sweeter and sweeter until they are either eaten by birds or fall off with the wind. This fact of Autumn Olive, is what gives me a lax attitude about when I go out to harvest. You can not do this with almost any other berry. Try waiting to harvest Black Raspberries! Gone! The length of time at which you can harvest these berries allows you to get to them when its convenient. Which is pretty darn cool!
If you like many other folks, detest this bush, then there are two methods I recommend for ridding your place of this pest. Number one: Cut the plant down over and over again until the plant can no longer photosynthesize. This can be done by hand or by goat. Goats absolutely love eating Autumn olive. You may scoff at this, but this method surely works. A plant continually deprived of energy stores cannot possibly hope to survive. This method does not require you to poison the Earth either.
The second method, and the one that I am the biggest fan of, is to utilize Autumn olives hatred of shade against it. Plant a food forest around the bushes and watch as it slowly withers in conditions it cannot handle. If you cut these bushes down, they dump nitrogen into the soil and the trees around it will suck up much of that nitrogen, and they will grow quicker because of this fact. If there is anything that I have noticed in observation of this plant over the past decade, it is that Autumn Olive will not tolerate shade conditions. This gives us the ideal conditions for reforesting areas it has taken over.
Autumn Olive may be hated, and maybe some of that hatred is warranted, but the reality is that this plant is here now, and probably here to stay. Instead of continually fighting a useless war against it, let’s embrace the benefits that this plant has to offer. And let’s fight it in ways that make sense. Invite this invader into your kitchen this fall, you will not be disappointed!
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