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Sweet, Tart, Juicy—and Invasive: Autumn Olives Are Ripe for the Picking

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Sweet, Tart, Juicy—and Invasive: Autumn Olives Are Ripe for the Picking

August 21, 2023

Invasive autumn olives have a long, rewarding season. Ripening from late summer through fall, their small red drupes are tart, sweet, gelatinously juicy, and tannic, like an unlikely meeting of red currants with tomato and persimmon. Foraging for the fruit can be grounding at a time when broader events make us feel like we’re trapped on a roller coaster that jumped the rails into the void. Collecting seasonal food (“…while we have seasons,” we ruminate, darkly) can be very therapeutic. So gather autumn olives while ye may—they are a delicious, sustainable forage.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Autumn olives ripening in New York City.

One of the best feral fruits to be found, autumn olives (another of its common names is Japanese silver berry) are also one of the least appreciated. Introduced to the United States from East Asia in the early 19th century, Elaeagnus umbellata received a boost when it was widely planted in the mid 20th century to rehabilitate strip mines and to contain erosion beside highways. Oops. Autumn olive now thrives in the eastern United States, into the Midwest, and south to Florida, forming nitrogen-fixing, allelopathic, habitat-disrupting thickets where it is happy.

That’s plenty of fruit for everybody, including fall’s migrating birds, who spread it as they travel.

Above: Silver-stippled autumn olives are also called Japanese silverberry.

Picking autumn olives does in fact help curb the small trees’ spread, although, to be effective, you would have to be thorough. Autumn olive is considered a severe threat, in conservation terms, in several states. Better yet, collect, then cut down. And do not plant.

Above: In spring, autumn olive flowers are richly perfumed.

You might notice the trees in spring, when, for a few weeks, an invisible curtain of scent may stop you as you pass the unobtrusive trees. Concealed beneath the silver-green leaves are thousands of tiny, pale yellow tubular flowers in intensely scented clusters.

Above: The fruits appear in late summer/early fall.

The easier time to recognize the tree is as late summer dips towards early fall, and the red currant–like fruits are begin to ripen inside their silver-filigreed skins.

Dated conventional thinking supposes that a plant in a cultivated setting is a plant safe from escape. How can an exotic ornamental in an urban park or a suburban garden possibly affect the woodland or meadows or shorelines miles away?  The answer is the thing with feathers: Locally, where I forage, New York City is on migration’s super-highway—the Atlantic Flyway; stuffed full of autumn olives, birds pass the seeds as they travel.

Above: A bumper crop of autumn olives.

Collecting the fruit is a tiny gesture towards halting the spread of a species whose chief antagonist to date has been Roundup. In the age of Monsanto and herbicide-resistant superweeds, eating invasive plants has never seemed more virtuous.

Above: Goumi, the fruit of Elaeagnus multiflora, is larger than the autumn olive.

There may be a glimmer of hope for would-be growers of these versatile and healthy fruits: the elusive goumi, Elaeagnus multiflora. This autumn olive relative ripens in early summer, and has much larger fruit, which is also sweeter, but still with that tannic edge. Goumi skin is also ornamented with silver. While both species are considered invasive, the goumi is less reviled, although I am not sure why it wouldn’t spread as easily. Perhaps it just hasn’t reached a tipping point, yet. But if you are tempted, E. multiflora will produce pounds of fruit.

Above: A bowlful of autumn olives, about to be washed.

Before they are deeply ripe, autumn olives define pucker. Their astringent juice is ultra-tannic. But as their tannins recede, the drupes (each fruit has one elongated seed) become softer and a sweet edge begins to smooth the sour. They are ripe for picking. At this stage they are delicious eaten out of hand (if you like red currants), their seeds swallowed or spat. Gather them by the bagful to take home.

Above: A food mill separates the narrow seeds from the fruits’ pulp and juice.
Above: Like pulped and strained tomatoes, autumn olive juice separates quickly.

After the ripe fruit has been put through a food mill, the pale juice separates distinctively, and quickly, from the solids. Like tomatoes, autumn olives contain heart-healthy lycopenes, but in higher concentrations. The pale part of the autumn olive juice is a good cocktail base, or an austere drink in its own right.

Above: Autumn olive relish with salt-cured egg yolks, cucumbers, and labneh.

Cooked down and seasoned with salt and ground coriander, the carmine pulp is an intense, easy condiment, spooned onto seared pork chops, added to the fixings for grilled cheese sandwiches, or to open-face crackers bristling with lunchtime temptation. With the addition of sugar, autumn olive jam is a mouthwateringly assertive topping for panna cotta, yogurt, or ice cream, and a swirl of it turns an almond frangipane crimson.

Above: Autumn olive jam.

Autumn-Olive Jam

Because of autumn olives’ high levels of lycopene, freshly-milled pulp and juice will separate. I find that slow stirring while the jam is boiling helps the clearer juice cook off. The successful jam will not be wobbly like a jelly, but more like a thick, spoonable paste. It is delectable. Also: A food mill is an essential tool, here.

Autumn olive measurement guidelines:

  • 1 cup autumn olives = approx. 5oz
  • 2 cups autumn olives, food-milled = ¾ – 1 cup cup juice-with-pulp

The Jam:

  • 20 oz (about 4 cups) autumn olive juice and pulp (from about 8 cups fruit)
  • 10 oz sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon

Combine the autumn olive juice and pulp with the sugar in a large pot. Bring to a simmer over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Cook, stirring occasionally as it thickens and skimming off any foam. When the mixture can coat the back of a spoon, add the lemon juice, and stir more often, especially if you still see a clear liquid along with the thicker jam. Stirring helps incorporate it, while some cooks off.  Continue to cook until the jam is thick, lowering the heat a little if scorching is a problem. This jam behaves rather differently from most, so I don’t use a thermometer to see whether setting-point (220’F) has been reached. Rely on your eyes for the texture and the taste.

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Frequently asked questions

What are autumn olives?

Autumn olives are shrubs that are native to Asia. They produce small red berries that are tart and sweet.

Why are autumn olives considered invasive?

Autumn olives are considered invasive because they spread rapidly and outcompete native plants for resources. They can quickly dominate an area, negatively impacting the ecosystem.

How do autumn olives spread?

Autumn olives spread primarily through birds eating the berries and dispersing the seeds in their droppings. The seeds are also spread by animals, water, and human activities.

Are autumn olives harmful to the environment?

Yes, autumn olives are harmful to the environment. Their aggressive growth can crowd out native plants, reducing biodiversity. They also have a dense root system that can lead to soil erosion.

Can autumn olives be controlled or eradicated?

While it is difficult to completely eradicate autumn olives once they have established, control measures can be taken. These include manual removal, mowing, herbicide application, and repeated monitoring and maintenance.

Are autumn olives edible?

Yes, autumn olives are edible. The berries can be used in jams, jellies, sauces, and other culinary creations. However, it is important to note that eating autumn olives may contribute to their spread and invasion of native habitats.

Are there any benefits to autumn olives?

While autumn olives are invasive, they do have some benefits. The berries are highly nutritious and rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Additionally, their dense growth can provide habitat and food for wildlife.

Can autumn olives be used for landscaping purposes?

Autumn olives are not recommended for landscaping purposes due to their invasive nature. It is better to choose native alternatives that support local biodiversity and ecosystem health.

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