Ode to the Autumn Olive

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I have know for a while that autumn olives (Elaeagnus umbellata) were edible. I just never took the time to go after them. But this year seems to be the year when I started to forage more consistently (bird cherries, wineberries, elderberries, chestnuts, Japanese quince, pawpaws, wild grapes etc) and so when a shrub of autumn olives shimmering in yesterday’s morning sun called to me, I grabbed a bucket and I started to pick. Let me tell you what a nice way to while away an hour it was (and do something useful too!). Warm (but not too warm) sun on my back, the berries like little prayer grains under my fingers, my mind ticking all the reasons such a cursed plant (by some) provides for thankfulness. Because, truly, what’s not to like about autumn olives?

Let’s see:

- it’s easy to grow and it grows itself quite well too. It seems to be quite pest-free, fungus-free, rot-free, blight-free.. perfect for organic cultivation. Of how many fruit trees can you say that in Virginia?

- it’s easy to pick: no thorn (unlike blackberries), easy to reach (unlike wild cherries or wild grapes), and does not stain (unlike mulberries… or wild grapes).

- it ripens together (unlike blueberries) and the berries will hang on the trees in good conditions for weeks at a time (not so with raspberries). So there is no pressure along the line of  “must.be.picked.NOW” or to go out every other days to pick. How accommodating!

- it’s prolific providing lots and lots of  fruit (unlike super-shy fruiter pawpaws). Branches loaded with berries arch back and touch the ground.

- it’s an attractive plant (so attractive that it has been planted as ornamental) with sweet perfumed blossoms in the spring, silvery leaves that dance in the wind and bright red berries flecked with gold.

- the bears leave them alone (unlike cherries).

- harvest season is in the fall when snakes are less actives and there are no flies, no gnats, no chewing, blood-thirsty biting, $#@&!!! insects.

- it’s a thrifty plant that thrives in waste places and has been planted to control erosion and as wind break.

- the berries are loaded in lycopen (15 times what’s in tomatoes). Because, you know, there are people to whom you must show such “health” benefits before they’ll even look at any new food. So I thought I’d mention that if you need such justification.

And – best of all – they are tasty! Wait long enough in the fall for the berries to fully ripen, and the proverbial astringency and tartness is quite tame. The ones I have picked in the last few days were in fact less tart than currants.

Ah yes, some say it’s invasive, but I can only like a plant with such will to live and such gentle generosity. I have a lot more complaints on the invasivity scale when it comes to kudzu, Canada thistle (not originally from Canada!) or poison ivy (a native!). If we are going to be invaded by plants, then autumn olive gets my vote.

I gently cooked the berries with water and then pressed them through a jelly bag, and then again through a sieve. My beloved food mill is currently “in the shop” awaiting repair. Imagine, I have managed to wear out the spring mechanism in the grinding plate – can’t think how – and so I had to make do with what I have.  A food mill would have been a lot better so use that if you have one). I then measured the liquid and to each liter of thick juice, I added 750g of sugar and cooked again until gel point. It did get quite nicely, but next time, I will use very little water and less sugar (it’s now a little too sweet for my taste). Still it jelled quite nicely.

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I also saved some of the juicy purée and stuck it in the fridge. Big surprise! The red pulp dropped at the bottom of the jar, and the top was a milky juice – a dead ringer for pastis or syrup of orgeat in appearance – and yet  amazingly refreshing and surprisingly good. Not need to add any sugar either. Sam Thayer explains that the lycopen not being water soluble separates from the juice. Do read Sam’s article by the way – it is a most comprehensive overview of autumn olive that you are likely to find anywhere.

autum-olive-juice-001

Next? I am going to try to make fruit leather (I went back out today to take a walk and just so open to take some bags with me – another half gallon of autumn olive berries is now awaiting). Both Sam Thayer and Leslie of We are Made of Dreams and Bones swear by it. And I know it WILL jell!

(and I have my eyes on yet another shrub…. lalalala)

21 comments

  1. Hazel says:

    Awesome! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Candylei says:

    Look at your basket of berries! Funny you would mention poison ivy as I have it now. I’ve been eating a few chestnuts every day since they are all over…those prickly sea urchins on our lawn!
    I found your blog on Rowena’s blog links. How fun to read about others gardening harvests.
    Candylei

  3. Spots says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It is wonderful to find that this hugely prolific (ie invasive) plant has a major redeeming quality! Now, if you could just find a culinary use for Oriental Bittersweet berries!

  4. marielou says:

    effectivement tout cela a l’air tres appetissant .

  5. Sasa says:

    Lovely! I just conquered my fear of making jam recently. Do you have to cook them for the lycopene to be available to your system like tomatoes I wonder?

  6. sylvie says:

    Sasa – that I do not know- I did nor even know that about tomatoes. But I can tell you autumn berries taste good (when ripe) raw or cooked.

    Marielou – non seulement ca a l’air, mais c’est!

    Spots- I seem to recall Oriental Bittersweet being poisonous…

    Candylei – enjoy your harvest too!

    Hazel – any time!

  7. sabine says:

    humm c’est tres tres bon, tres appétissant !!!

  8. Sylvie,

    Great post- I did not know these were edible, and they ring the woods around our property! Alas, the birds made off with them before I could harvest, but a few shriveled berries remained and they were delicious. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out next year.

    Keep up the great writing, and Happy Thanksgiving!

  9. heiko says:

    It’s a great fruit, I can only agree with everything you say. On the question of lycopene, cooked tomatoes are only better than raw ones, because it concentrates the lycopene. Autumn olives being so much higher in them shouldn’t require that. What I find peculiar is that you Americans call it autumn olive rather than ‘fall olive’. Why would that be I wonder?

  10. sylvie says:

    heiko – thanks for stopping by! Good question! Autumn “Olive” is bad enough (some people are trying to get it renamed Autumnberry actually); Fall olive sounds even worst. Maybe because the plant was introduced in the US at a time when the word autumn was more prevalent then? Anyhow, the word autumn is still often used in the US in literary or scientific contexts.
    But by whatever name the fruit goes, I will now make sure to collect them every year.

  11. Peter says:

    These are invasive up here, so I was dissuaded from planting any. But if I find any on walks, I always bring the fruit home. Have you tried seaberries?

  12. sylvie says:

    Peter – I have not had a chance to try sea-buckthorn. Have never met any on my walks. I understand that their extreme thorniness make the harvest unpleasant … unlike autumn olive. I admit to considering ordering some for planting though… but I’ll probably cope out and go for something like blue honeysuckle berries or elderberries! so.. have you tried them? what do they taste like?

  13. Katherine says:

    Thank you Sylvie for this interesting article. You are so clever! We fight this bush on our farm constantly. Perhaps the answer is to eat them up! I was wondering if the berries might be candidates for drying?

    Also, would one have to put the berries through a food mill when making jam out of them, or could they just be crushed like damson plums?

  14. sylvie says:

    Katherine – I have not tried drying them, but I suspect that’s probably not the best way to preserve them. While the fresh seed is soft, I expect it would harden as it dries and make eating the dry berries rather unpleasant. But with so many berries around, you could just try at the beginning of the season: if you like the result, just back for more. The picking season is quite long after all. But I am happy to report that fruit leather (dried fruit puree) works remarkably well and is rather tasty – also a beautiful dark mahogany red.

    I made the jam by either rubbing/pressing the pulp through a fine sieve or by running it through a food mill (plate with the smallest holes). The latter is what I recommend: faster!

  15. [...] Grapes are forming nicely on the vine… I should not count my grapes before they are harvested – this would be the first year – but so far, they look just great. I know, a lot of creatures and fungi like grapes so harvest is far from a sure thing.. but still… there is this thing called anticipation.  And then in August we can start harvesting elderberries and in October the Autumn berries. [...]

  16. mike mccormick says:

    How does one acquire plants and what conditions does it grow best in? My lemon grass is growing like crazy but not selling too well-any ideas for pushing lemon grass at the farmers market or locally? Thanks, Mike Also have a lot of shiso-Japanese Basil.

  17. sylvie says:

    Mike – plantings were encouraged by various departments of agriculture in the last century as hedges and to combat erosion. The plants self-seed very easily and is considered invasive today – it grows just about anywhere that’s sunny. Not demanding about soil at all.. There are plenty of pastures in Rappahannock full with young ones that should be very easy to dig. I bet the land owners would gladly let you have it. As a matter of fact, I bet if you ask for it on RappNet you would 1. be called crazy, 2. be inundated with offers.
    But if you insist on buying one, search for the botanical name and also for “goumi” or “gumi” plant. Raintree Nursery offers them for about $20 a plant + shipping…

    i.e. lemon grass: print recipe cards using lemon grass (Thai & Vietnamese cuisines use it quite a bit) and hand them out to customers. People just don’t know what to do with it!

  18. Marcia Kirkpatrick says:

    Hi Sylvie

    I read the article on your website about Autumn Olive with interest–but also with concern. I think it is great to make use of local plants including invasives. Still, it has to be considered making the best of a bad thing.

    I do think that recommending Autumn Olive for cultivation, as you seem to be doing, should be reconsidered. “What’s not to like” is that it crowds out native plants which has a cascading effect on the eco-system. The fact that Autumn Olive is not liked by bears or pests has a downside–there is little to deter its spread. Ailanthus is another plant that no one wants to eat. (I gather from another post that birds like Autumn Olive, but that’s no help as they typically eat the fruit and spread the seeds.)

    I understand the initial appeal of Autumn Olive. The first time I saw one (on a highway median) I was so smitten, I called the highway department to try to find out what it was. Of course a lot of invasives got here in the first place because of their charms. Unfortunately, once you get to know them you realize they are thugs in a pearl necklace.

    Maybe I feel so strongly about Autumn Olive because of seeing what its cousin, Russian Olive, has done throughout the West. Like Ailanthus, each tree produces thousands of seeds, and Russian Olive is the dominant species in many areas. The subsistence agriculture practiced for centuries in Canyon de Chelly has been completely disrupted by Russian Olive, through its direct effect and indirectly through its effects on water systems in the canyon.

    I love your posts and your website. You manage to be good at a lot of things at once–gardening, writing, photography, graphic design. Your many activities have improved the quality of life for many of us in “Greater Rappahannock” and beyond.

    This is the only thing you have written that has given me anything but pleasure.

    Marcia

  19. sylvie says:

    Marcia – thank you for your thoughtful comment and your very kind words. I understand your point of view.

    I do not – at least it was not my intent – to recommend planting autumn olives. But Eleagnus is here and it is here to stay. I – for one – cannot approve of spraying herbicides to destroy it. I also cannot help by admiring its toughness – and beauty – as a plant. Since it is here, we may as well use it, and collecting the fruit to eat is one way to help control its spread.

    If we made similar use of kudzu – which is edible and whose leave can be use as fodder for cattle – maybe it would not be the rapacious “invasive” it is.

    Thank you. And thank you for taking the time to write.

  20. Susan Ranstead says:

    I also have some of these lovely tress on my property. I’m thinking of pruning them down severely so that I can net them like a cherry tree. 1. The birds won’t be transferring seeds anywhere else, and 2. easier for me to reach as my trees have grown quite tall.

    I have dried some in the past to add to my tea. But my favorite thing is to take the pulp and add it in the pot when I make my whole cranberry sauce. I also toss in apples, orange zest and sometimes raisins. Very yummy with turkey or with brie on toast.

  21. sylvie says:

    That sounds very nice Susan – I really like that idea.

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