The story of autumn olive

THE ASSOCIATED PRESSNovember 14, 2013 

Outside my window is a large, rounded shrub with leafless branches suffused in a golden haze. That haze is actually hundreds if not thousands of golden berries clustered tightly along the thin stems.

This shrub asked nothing more from me than planting and care — in the form of water and mulch — for only its first year in the ground.

Although not considered so years ago when I planted it, the shrub — known as autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) — is now considered dangerous, an invasive species. It was brought over from Asia in the 1830s, and found the soils and climates here much to its liking. With the help of birds, which gobble down the fruits and subsequently eject the seeds, autumn olive has spread far and wide. There are dozens of wild autumn olives within a short bicycle ride of my garden.

Beyond its fecundity, adaptability and that golden haze, autumn olive offers more pluses. The berries are preceded, in spring, by flowers that exude a sweet perfume. The wavy leaves are flecked with silver and are practically white on their undersides, so the whole plant is transformed into a shimmering globe in summer breezes. And the adaptability that makes this shrub weedy also means it can be used to re-clothe ground trashed by construction projects or mine spoils. The roots even harbor microorganisms that convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use, thus building soil fertility.

But back to those golden berries: Most autumn olive shrubs actually bear crimson berries, which by now have been stripped from the stem. What a sight my ducks made through autumn, waddling over in a bee-line every morning to gobble up fallen and low hanging fruits from my crimson-berried autumn olive bushes.

The fruits, if picked at the right moment, also taste good fresh to us humans, a feature that won autumn olive a mention in my book, “Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden” (Timber Press, 2004). Autumn olive fruits have been eaten in Japan, with whole branches lopped off and sold on the streets with their fruits attached. The Japanese name for autumn olive is aki-gumi, meaning “autumn silverberry,” and it refers to the ripening period and the silvery flecking found also on the fruits.

Incidentally, autumn olives are rich in lycopene, a natural compound that offers protection against certain types of cancers.

A few varieties of autumn olive have been selected for their dazzling shows of fruit. One, Brilliant Rose, is also my favorite for eating, if picked during that narrow window of time when the berries have lost their astringency but have not yet started to shrivel. Charlie’s Golden autumn olive fruits, responsible for that golden haze, only rarely get sweet enough for me. The birds evidently agree, or more probably bypass them because they are not red. Charlie’s Golden, then, perhaps will not contribute to the invasive spread of autumn olive, yet can provide a visual treat.

Because of its invasiveness, autumn olive should not be planted wherever it is considered so; check with your state department of environmental conservation to determine whether or not it is invasive in your state.

On the other hand, if you come upon some wild shrubs of autumn olive, enjoy the plant’s beauty and, after definitive identification, the berries. Eating them will make some small contribution to throttling the plants’ spread.

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