Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) shrubs are a common sight along Massachusetts roads and at the edges of clearings and fields. These shrubs were commonly planted for windbreaks and erosion control in the 1940s before it was known how invasive they could be. The vast amount of fruit produced by each shrub, and the high germination success of the seeds, means that once there is one autumn olive in a location, there will likely be more. The high number of berries and the shrub’s propensity to grow in human-altered landscapes also mean that they are easy to harvest and easy to find. Also, unlike some less prolific or threatened edible plants, autumn olive is a plant you can harvest hoards of fruit from with a clean conscious, since by collecting the berries you are doing your small part to stop the spread of an invasive species.
Although the round to oval ripe berries of autumn olive are bright red at first glance, upon closer inspection you will notice the many silver speckles that give the shrub its other common name: Silverberry. Like the berries, the tops of the elongated oval leaves are also flecked in silver spots, and the undersides of the leaves are silvery white.
The upper side of autumn olive leaves with silver spots.
The under side of autumn olive leaves: a silvery white.
In addition to turning red, another indication that the berries are ready to harvest is that they soften when they are ripe. The ripe berries can be eaten raw (spit out the fairly large seed), and have a sweet, tart taste. They are high in Vitamins A, C, and E, so they not only taste great, but they are good for you too. They can also be run through a food mill to produce a pulp that can be turned into a fruit sauce or jam, or turned into fruit leather.
Autumn olive shrubs produce more fruit and ripen earlier if they are in full sun. It is unsurprising then, that the autumn olive berries in my shady yard are just starting to ripen, while many autumn olives in open sunny areas have branches laden with ripe fruit now; it will probably be a couple weeks before we can take full advantage of the autumn olive berry harvest in our yard. Have you seen (or tasted!) autumn olive berries this season?
Ripe autumn olive berries: red with silver speckles.