If you search for “autumn olive” on the internet, you get articles from all manner of agricultural, forestry, and conservation services telling you how to eradicate it from the landscape, profiling it as an aggressive invasive exotic. It’s interesting that while there’s so much information on controlling this plant, hardly anyone talks about eating the fruit, which contains the seed—the plant’s primary means of propagation. The fruit, which happens to be one of the most universally-relished fruits (once tasted), could be a much more tempting and effective “carrot” method of motivating people to help slow the spread of the plant, rather than the “stick” method of telling people it’s bad and they should spend their free time employing the old “hack and squirt” method of removal.
How would you rather spend your Sunday, filling buckets with free, lycopene-laden, sweet-tart-tasting fruit, or lugging around a hatchet and a sprayer full of herbicide? I know, “if you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em” gets used too liberally in scenarios where it just isn’t feasible, but in the case of autumn olive, it really might be, and it’ll only be delicious to try.
Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), given its easy-growing nature, is not hard to find. It was introduced to North America in the early 1800s from Asia for all kinds of reasons, mainly erosion control, soil reclamation, and wildlife habitat, all of which it did so well that it succeeded it’s way from “helpful newcomer” to “pest” in no time flat.
It’s been successful everywhere but the desert southwest and the high, dry prairies, with pasture land and “waste spaces” in the eastern half of the country seeing the greatest abundance. It’s got a propensity for taking root in depleted soils and recently disturbed places, so you’ll find it more often near urban, suburban, or agricultural places than out in mature forested areas.
It can tolerate lean soils because it fixes atmospheric nitrogen through nodules on its roots, which, in many environments, like an orchard, is really beneficial to the plants around it because it makes nitrogen which would otherwise be unavailable to the surrounding trees, accessible. In a prairie or grassland environment, however, where the native plants are adapted to and thrive in lean soils, this excess nitrogen creates a new environment, less hospitable to the existing native species and gives the advantage to competitive non-natives. All this to say, it’s complicated, it’s situational, whether or not autumn olive is beneficial to a place, but what’s not situational is the advantageousness of eating all the fruit.
In late summer through late fall, look to your local field edge, windbreak, hedgerow, and vacant lot for medium- to large-sized shrubs with a gleaming metallic sheen. This is the best way I’ve found to spot autumn olive at a distance, especially on a breezy day, as the undersides of the leaves are shinier than the tops and a wind will make them flutter and catch the light.
As you get closer, you should see that the leaves are simple and ovate with a pointed tip, smooth, wavy margins, and are arranged alternately on the branches. The leaves being alternate is a key identification feature that will distinguish autumn-olive from similar-looking shrubs like bush honeysuckles and buffalo berries.
The bark is gray/brown, with the young twigs having the same silvery, metallic quality as the undersides of the leaves. There are more often than not, large, very sharp, thorns present on the twigs, especially of younger plants, but this is variable.
Depending on the region, autumn olive blooms from April through June with clusters of intoxicatingly sweet-smelling, cream to yellow, tubular flowers. For the majority of the summer, after the flowers are pollinated, there will be tiny, hard, green fruits that don’t seem to grow at all until one day they’re all swollen and turning from green to orange to red.
The fruit, rebranded as “autumnberries” to help them gain popularity as a food, begin to ripen as early as late August and on into November depending on the region and the weather. Autumn olives are notoriously heavy fruiters, so once their ripe, you should be able to spot the limbs weighed down with clusters of red autumnberries from a good distance. The fruit is speckled in the same silvery, scales as the undersides of the leaves, and has only one, soft seed inside.
It’s best to wait until the fruit is fully ripe to lighten up the powerful astringency that the young, underripe fruit has. The fruit should be soft, red (not orange), and should come off the stem easily. Here, in Maine, I’m usually harvesting in September and October, and the fruit is notably sweeter, less astringent, and comes clean off the stem after they get hit with a frost.
The other benefit of picking after a frost is that many of the leaves have fallen off, which means they won’t fall in your basket, making sorting your berries is much faster. I like to collect either into a large cherry-picking bucket from an orchard supply company or into some large, wide, flat box set on the ground. I grab a branch with my left hand and from where to fruit begins on down to the tip, I’ll gently but briskly roll and rake the autumberries off with my right hand. It’s not uncommon to collect twenty pounds and often much more from one shrub, so bring out your big baskets for this!
I love them by the fistful while I pick, reminding me so much of pomegranate seeds, but in addition to field gorging, autumnberries are one of my favorite fruits for preserves. They have a tang that most other fruit can’t touch, a showstopping color, and a really dreamy texture.
I like to run them through a food mill, which they pass through easily to give you a smooth puree. This puree can be used as the base for so many things, savory or sweet. If you cover the puree and let it sit for a day in the fridge, the juice will naturally separate from the pulp. Despite its clear color, this juice is a nectar of the gods. The flavor will make your jaw drop.
The flesh of the autumnberries has a very tomato-like quality. Myself, a loyal Heinz girl, can’t resist using autumnberries for some amazing ketchup, even better barbecue sauce, and a cookout crowd-pleasing meat glaze.
The puree can also be used to make sweets like jam, sorbet, smoothies, sauces, added to applesauce, and my favorite, fruit leather. There is no better and easier-to-make treat than fruit leather on the planet. And nothing makes you feel like a lucky kid than pulling out some homemade autumnberry fruit leather from your hunting pack to snack on while you wait for your next harvest to walk by.