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Herb of the Month

by Maggie Dougherty-Roberts    

AUTUMN OLIVE (Elaeagnus umbellata)

Autumn olive (or Autumn berry) is a small, tough, multi-stemmed tree or large shrub native to China, Japan and Korea, where many species were traditionally used for food. It was introduced to the U.S. in 1930, and by the 1950s was widely promoted and planted as a beneficial wildlife plant for erosion control, landscaping and soil improvement. Very easy to grow, the fruit of the autumn olive was favored by birds who then distributed the seeds readily. The seeds grew easily even in unfavorable soil, so autumn olive became prevalent in almost all parts of the U.S. except higher mountain elevations, the coldest and driest areas.

Even in 1963, autumn olive was touted as being a miracle plant with no evidence of “becoming a pest by spreading onto pastures or well-kept places” (Latham). However, in subsequent years, autumn olive has become so prevalent it is considered invasive in many areas, having out-competed and displaced most native species. This is in part due to nitrogen-fixing root nodules which allow autumn olive to grow in denuded areas such as eroded hillsides, old mine spoils, steep gravelly areas, overgrazed fields, and newly-constructed roadways. Autumn olive is quite drought tolerant and can grow in sun or light shade.

Autumn olive is fairly easy to recognize with its tough, ovate alternate dark green leaves and a silvery gray underside. Like its close relative buffalo berry, the twigs and leaves are covered with tiny silvery flakes or scales. In late spring, dull yellow flowers in crowded clusters hang from the leaf axils. Each flower consists of four petals joined at the base to form a tube; the blossoms produce a strong, sweet fragrance. Fertilized flowers produce olive-shaped fruit smaller than a currant or pea. They remain light green all summer, but turn bright orange-red in the fall when ripe. Often thorny when immature, bushes grow less sharp as they mature, but many times form dense thickets.

In the early 90s, the benefits of such a hardy plant began to compete with its reputation as an invasive species to be eradicated in any way possible. Testing by experts at the USDA found autumn olives to be an excellent source of the antioxidant lycopene, containing 17-18% more than tomatoes. About this time, scientists involved with the studies decided to change the name autumn olive to autumn berry, thereby presenting it to the public as a desirable fruit.

Obviously, due to the invasive tendency, it is not recommended to deliberately plant autumn berry. The birds plant plenty. If you are looking to plant a shrub with similar characteristics in a similar environment, try some native shrubs such as black haw viburnum, black chokeberry, serviceberry, viburnum dentatum or winterberry. However, if you should find that you have a thicket of autumn berries at hand, make delicious and nutritious jam, pies, cobblers and juice!

Sources. The information that Maggie used came from the website "Autumnberry, Autumnl-olive" in

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