Life Webs

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Eating autumn olives

autumnoliveAre autumn olives the greatest untapped resource in North America? Are they a scourge of mankind? Perhaps a bit of both?

First, what everyone agrees on: Eleagnus umbellata is a small tree or large shrub native to Asia. It was introduced into the United States as an ornamental in the early nineteenth century, escaped cultivation and now is found everywhere in disused fields, roadsides and waste lands – if you’re looking for it, that is. (In sixty years, I never noticed it.) It has shiny, dark-green leaves with silvery undersides, yellowish flowers and beautiful red fruits that ripen in early autumn. Though it is uninteresting to insects, the fruits are moderately attractive to birds. The trees are tremendously prolific, and they grow and spread quite rapidly.

Despite its name, the autumn olive bears no relation to an olive. The leaves and the fruits (especially the unripe fruits) do somewhat resemble those of olives, but the leaves are a bit rounder and the ripe fruits are red, juicy and sweet-tart, with small, chewy seeds. Actually, the fruits look more like red currants than anything else.

The prosecution says: These trees are invasive. They quickly fill entire landscapes, displacing native shrubs and grasses. Though they feed birds (one reason they spread so quickly is that the birds spread their seeds), they do not support insects – leaving the birds with nothing to feed their young. So in the end, they drive the birds away, too. What’s more, they keep landscapes stuck in mid-succession, preventing canopy trees from growing and returning the land to forest, which is what it “wants” to be. Finally, they have no commercial use; there is no market either for the fruit or the wood.

For the defense: It’s a beautiful tree. That should count for something. It’s nitrogen-fixing – as one of the few non-leguminous species to return nitrogen (that is, fertility) to the soil, it offers a way to quickly heal barren, depleted landscapes. (Did I mention there was once a gravel mine on the property where I now live?) Autumn olives can be used as temporary “nurse plants” to help other, more desirable trees get started.

Third, the ripe fruit – which is easy to collect – is highly nutritious. It’s chock full of vitamins, antioxidants, lycopenes, flavonoids, and all the other nutrients that have been systematically bred out of the fruits you buy in the supermarket. And finally, the fruit is delicious, either raw or cooked (or, so I hear, made into jams, jellies and fruit tarts).

So just imagine –  there are millions of these trees across the country, all producing delicious, nutritious, free fruit in waste spaces that no one is using. And sadly, most of the fruit goes to waste because few people know it’s good, or even edible.

We have a number of autumn olives (soon to be a much larger number) growing wild on the site of the old gravel mine. For the first four years we lived here, I admired the beauty of the trees, but only this year did I discover that we could eat the berries. In late September, when they ripened, we picked a bucket full, ate some raw and froze most of them. We’ve been eating them cooked with venison – one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted (and one you probably won’t encounter anywhere but in my house). I’m only sorry we didn’t pick enough to last us till next September. Next year, two buckets full. Maybe three.

The verdict: All right, I admit it. The tree is invasive. Nobody should be planting it. And eventually, as we plant more trees that are better-behaved and as those begin to grow, we’ll take out most of our autumn olives – or just let them be strangled by bittersweet vines, which is already starting to happen.

In the meantime, though, we have to ask, what is the alternative? If we chopped down all the autumn olives today, we’d end up with more multiflora rose and bush honeysuckle – two other invasives that have (as far as I know) no redeeming qualities whatsoever. So until we’ve created a more sustainable forest garden, the autumn olive has a role to play, both in helping to restore the land’s fertility and in feeding us. It’s hard to resent a tree that has so much to offer. Thanks for the freebies!