The Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is native to Asia and now grows prolifically throughout the United States. Other common names refer to the japanese silverberry, autumnberry, oleaster, or just elaeagnus.
The berries begin ripening from late summer (late August) and continue to bear fruit until late fall (early November). The berries are bright red, tart, rich in tannins, antioxidants, and lycopene (18 times higher than tomatoes). The ripeness and flavor varies from shrub to shrub. Additionally, the berries get sweeter later in the season but have more pressure from pests and birds.
The nitrogen fixing nodules of the plants root system make this tree-like shrub particularly well suited for poor and infertile soils. This, coupled with drought tolerance, enables the Autumn Olive to out compete many surrounding indigenous species. In fact, they were introduced to the U.S. to help recover eroded areas and re-landscape many of the old and decimated coal fields throughout Appalachia because of its rapid and vigorous growth. The Autumn Olive did such a good job that it is now considered a highly invasive species by the U.S. government and many homeowners.
The subject of autumn olive harvesting is a controversial one. Some people become very reactionary over the consideration of harvesting the berries for pleasure or entrepreneurial pursuit. Many advocate for a serious eradication protocol including harsh chemical treatments. We do not personally advocate for the planting of these trees (as they are doing throughout Europe) but see no problem enjoying the fruits of such a prolific species. Though we also recognize the need for active management. A very interesting research study would be to evaluate how management and harvesting of the berries including thinning and netting could potentially reduce the reproductive potential of the shrub while providing a sustainable and low input revenue opportunity and/or nutritious food throughout the year to harvesters.
As always, ecosystem dynamics are infinitely complicated and we must consider all of the consequences of managing or eradicating "invasive" species.
In the Fall of 2014, harvesters across Southwest Virginia picked up tarps, hooks, sticks and buckets to shake autumn olive berries from the shrubs. Harvesters were paid $2/lb and reached a total harvest of 35,000 lbs of autumn olive berries with the primary winnowing station located in Elk Creek, VA. The Southwest Virginia Autumn Berry Association is in the process of marketing the berries to New York City smoothie businesses as the berries are high in antioxidants including lycopene. If the market takes off we may expect more harvests in the future.
Harvest the berries as soon as the flavor suits your fancy.
Berries can be picked at rates ranging from 1 to 3 gallons per person per hour depending on the bush and the vigor of the individual. We had a relatively leisurely morning picking and harvested about 8 gallons per 4 people in 3 hours. There are several methods of picking that are commonly utilized:
- Hold berry laden branches over your harvest bucket and simply loosen all the ripe berries and let them fall in. This method works well, but it is hard to both hold the bucket and hold the branches at the same time.
- Spread a tarp over the ground and beat the branches with sticks. This works well when all the berries are ripe and relatively loose on the tree. This method also gets a lot of "chaff" in the form of bugs, sticks, leaves, etc.
- Prune the berry laden branches and then take the berries off while sitting on the ground in the shade. This is the method we used and feel that it worked quite well. We picked one large bush almost completely clean in this manner. See pictures below.
There are several commonly referenced uses for autumn olive (and more to be developed!).
- Fruit Leather
- Smoothies (whole berries)
- Pies and baked goods (whole berries)
There are many good recipes available over the internet but the same basic initial process applies to them all.
- Wash - Wash the berries as best you can with cold water. We found that putting them in flat plastic container filled with water helps the sticks, leaves, bugs, and rotten berries float to the top to be skimmed off. You do not have to remove all of the leaves as the mixture will be food milled later.
- Boil - Add a ratio of 8 cups berries to 1 cup water to a pan and slowly bring to a boil. Simmer for about 20 minutes mashing as they simmer. (Some people skip this step and go straight to the food mill)
- Strain - Add several cups at a time to a food mill and process to remove the seeds and other bits.
The leftover mixture will be a slightly thick deep red autumn olive juice. The lycopene is contained in the dark red pulp of the mixture. As this is not water soluble it will separate if left to stand leaving behind a clear juice on top and dark pulp on bottom. The nature of this to separate can pose a slight problem in the preparation of jam leaving a "variegated" product. It is recommended to cook the mixture to thicken it some before making jam or fruit leather and to mix it thoroughly. Some people will also allow the two liquids to separate and strain off the juice for a nice, crisp, glass of Autumn Olive juice and use the leftover pulp for other purposes. But to make both jam and fruit leather it is recommended to not separate the mixture.
Take a look at some of the links below for various recipes. We used the basic Pomona's Pectin recipe with honey as sweetener to the final processed mixture.
See the following references for more detailed information. (These references have also been used in the development of this calendar entry):
- Natures Garden: A guide to identifying, harvesting and preparing edible wild plants by Samuel Thayer - As always, a great resource covering identification, harvesting, preparation and more.
- Blue Ridge Discovery Center - http://blueridgediscoverycenter.org/blueridgediscoverycenterblog/2010/10/autumn-olive-fruit-leather.html?rq=autumn%20olive - Years ago (2010) one of the founding members of BRDC (Devon Floyd) did some nice experimentation, research, and write-up on harvesting and making autumn olive fruit leather.
- Return to Nature - http://returntonature.us/foraging-the-autumn-olive/ - General discussion of autumn olive berries with specific mention of the seeds having high omega 3's.. Good looking smoothie recipe.
- Wild Blessings - http://wildblessings.com/autumn-olive-berry-jam/ - A basic and quality Autumn Olive jam recipe.
- Dreams and Bones - http://wearemadeofdreamsandbones.blogspot.com/2008/10/autumn-olive-recipe-time.html - Basic fruit leather recipe. (Alter sweetener to taste).
* As always, make sure that you have 100% confidence in the harvest and consumption of any wild food. You choose to do so at your own risk.*