– Oleaster Family
It truly baffles me how the autumn-olive remains one of the biggest wild food secrets in North America. Over vast regions of this continent it is our most common wild fruit. I have seen entire pastures overtaken with it, one after another, sometimes forming autumn-olive thickets covering twenty, forty, or even a hundred acres. In much of the country this is a regular sight; in fact, it is considered a noxious invasive weed in many areas and efforts are being made to eradicate it. Oftentimes, a single bush may be so loaded with fruit that several gallons may be picked from it, and this can be harvested with surprising efficiency. I have seen bushes so laden that their limbs rested solidly on the ground under the weight. Recently, I picked eleven quarts from a super-loaded bush—in less than fifteen minutes! The autumn-olive has received some attention for its content of lycopene, a chemical known to promote prostate health. Tomatoes are generally considered the standard source for this nutrient—but autumn-olives contain about eighteen times as much lycopene as tomatoes (Black and Fordham, 2005). But the most incredible fact about autumn-olives is their flavor: almost everybody loves them.
Growing up, I encountered the autumn-olive quite regularly. I was intrigued by the bush’s rugged appearance and by its odd red fruits covered with silvery flakes. Since it is not native, however, this plant was left out of my field guides and ignored by nature writers. Despite the fact that it is an incredible cover and food plant for wildlife, the hunting books and magazines that I read never made mention of it. And although the autumn-olive is a standout among wild fruits, none of my foraging references discussed it. For some years, then, I regularly saw this bush on my excursions but was unable to identify it.
It was Steve Brill’s (1994) wild food guide that finally suggested this fruit to me. After verifying the identification with a botanical key, I got my first taste of autumn-olive. I felt ashamed that I had missed out on such a good thing for so long when it had been right there for the picking. But I will miss out no more; I’m making up for lost time and stocking up on lycopene.
I don’t mean to make it sound like I’m the only one excited about this fruit. In test plots near Beltsville, Maryland, the USDA has achieved productivity of 3,600–12,600 pounds per acre (4,000 to 14,100 kg per hectare)—without using pesticides or fertilizers (Black and Fordham, 2005). These figures lead me to believe that, during bumper crop years, the largest autumn–olive thickets I’ve seen, in Kentucky and Tennessee, produce a whopping half million pounds (227,000 kg) of fruit! Not that I need that many, but it’s fun to drool over the idea. The authors of the above study believe that this fruit needs a name that connotes a fruity flavor to be widely accepted as food in the United States, suggesting the name “autumnberry.”
The autumnberry is somewhere between a hefty shrub and a small, tough, sprawling tree. It usually produces several gnarled and spreading trunks, the largest of which may reach 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter. The topmost limbs of an autumnberry bush rarely reach more than 16 feet (5 m) above the ground. During their first few years, autumnberries are formidably armed with sharp thorns, but older bushes are not nearly so thorny. The autumnberry is typically found in dense, even impenetrable stands. To the trained eye, such thickets can be recognized by this shrub’s growth form: trunks strongly arching and producing arched branches, the tips of which droop heavily and often reach the ground.
Autumnberry’s leaves are also rather distinct. Elliptic or oval in shape, they are rather tough and leathery for a deciduous shrub. The leaves are dark, dull green on top, and distinctly silvery underneath. Borne alternately, they are typically 2–3 inches (3–5 cm) long. The leaf margins are entire and often wavy or slightly curled.
The bark on older autumnberry trunks peels in long, thin, narrow strips, but on smaller trunks and branches it is smooth and grayish green. The twigs and leaves are covered with tiny silvery flakes or scales, a feature that this plant shares with its close relatives the buffaloberries (genus Shepherdia).
In mid to late spring the autumnberry produces copious dull yellow flowers in crowded clusters that hang from the leaf axils. Each flower is about 0.3 inch (8 mm) long and consists of four petals joined at the base to form a tube. The blossoms have a very strong fragrance, and a blooming thicket can produce a cloyingly sweet aroma.
Fertilized flowers produce olive-shaped fruits that are typically a little smaller than a currant or pea. Unripe clusters of autumnberries hang all summer long with little change, remaining light, dull green. In fall they plump up and turn to a bright orange-red but remain coated with silvery flakes. Each ripe autumnberry contains one seed, and these are very distinct in appearance. Soft-shelled and constricted to a point on each end, the yellowish-tan seeds have prominent lines running their length.
Autumnberry is fairly easy to recognize, but it is sometimes confused with several related shrubs. Buffaloberries have leaves with shiny scales like autumn‑olive, but the scales are more brown in color. Although buffaloberry leaves look similar, they grow in pairs rather than alternately like those of autumnberry. One species of buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis) is a smaller shrub and lacks thorns, while another (S. argentea) is similar in size to autumnberry and also thorny. The fruit is reddish but ripens earlier and is less elongated. Autumnberry also has a native relative, the wolfberry or silverberry Elaeagnus commutata. This northern shrub inhabits brushy, open areas of the boreal region from Quebec to Alaska. When ripe, the fruit remains green and is covered with silvery scales. The fruit of all three of these related shrubs is edible, so there is no danger in mistaking them for autumnberry.
Another shrub frequently confused with autumnberry is Tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica and L. x bella). Like autumnberry, this is a very common invasive shrub of old fields, disturbed ground, and roadsides. People often mistake the two when they are too lazy or careless to look at identifying details—they can only be mistaken at a superficial glance.
I bet you won’t do that.
Yaupon holly Ilex vomitoria, a shrub whose leaves contain caffeine and are used for tea, also has clusters of small red berries that may be confused with autumnberry. Yaupon is native primilary to the Coastal Plain of the Southeast. While the ranges of these shrubs overlap, they are not often found in the same areas. Yaupon’s toxic berries lack the silvery speckles of autumnberry, and each fruit contains four seeds rather than one as in autumnberry. The leaves differ in being evergreen, crenate or toothed, and in that they also lack the silvery flakes of autumnberry.
The autumn-olive is so named because of its close relationship with another tree, the Russian-olive Elaeagnus angustifolia, which is in turn named for its fruit’s appearance. Neither of these species is closely related to the true olives (genus Olea), and their fruits are not similar to the true olive in flavor, texture, or any other important quality.
People have a strong tendency to confuse autumn-olive and Russian-olive—not because they are hard to tell apart, but primarily because of their names. It is hard to speak of one without being asked about the other. Russian-olive is a well-known, non-native tree found in most of the United States and Canada. Like its ecological twin the Siberian elm, this tree can handle extremely hot summers, bitterly cold winters, and severe drought—making it adaptable to places where few other trees can grow. Russian-olive is abundant on the Great Plains and in semi-arid sections of the West. For many miles on the high plains of Wyoming and Colorado, this is the only tree to be seen, and scrubby forests of it have sprung up around many western cities, such as Salt Lake and Denver. It predominates in fencerows and windbreaks over much of the Great Plains.
The Russian olive has much narrower leaves than the autumnberry; they are willow-like with a silvery sheen on both sides. Russian-olive is a spreading tree, growing much larger than the autumn-olive, occasionally over a foot (30 cm) in diameter and 35 feet (11 m) tall.
The fruit of Russian-olive and autumnberry are quite different. The Russian-olive produces a drab, dry drupe about 0.5 inch (13 mm) long, gray-green when ripe and shaped like a miniature olive. The pulp is mealy and sweet, but also astringent. The flavor reminds me a little of dried figs. The seeds are hard and tough but leathery rather than stone-like; they can be chewed with great effort and will eventually give up the tiny but delicious nut-like kernel they contain. Russian-olives often fruit prodigiously, and I would love to find a practical and enjoyable way to use their crop.
Range and Habitat
The autumnberry is native to Asia, where it is one among many Elaeagnus species used for food. It was introduced to the United States in 1830. Hu (2005) lists eleven Elaeagnus species traditionally used for food in China, and some others are occasionally seen in North America. The autumnberry has been introduced to North America for erosion control, soil improvement, wildlife food and cover, landscaping, and, to a lesser extent, for its edible fruit. Like most exotic invasives, its occurrence is difficult to predict because this depends on both habitat and the happenstance of human introduction. It has not been here long enough for its habitat needs to be thoroughly understood.
The autumn-olive was lauded as a virtual miracle forty years ago; it was intentionally planted by the same government agencies that are now villainizing it and spending millions trying to eradicate it. Latham (1963, p. 19) expressed the prevailing attitude when he said, “These shrubs add beauty to narrow field corners, roadsides, [etc.]—with no evident danger of becoming a pest by spreading onto pastures or well-kept places.” Latham then lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan—around which, today, the autumn-olive is the most prevalent shrub, having choked out most native species. I wonder how many of the current ideas espoused by today’s natural resource managers will be laughed at in a generation. (I can name a few.)
Autumnberry may be found in southern Canada and all but the driest parts of the United States. In some regions it is rampantly abundant, and I will dare to say that this is the most common edible wild fruit in the eastern United States. And it is increasing in the West (Sundberg, 2002)—who knows how common it may be there in a generation or two. It is also a common shrub in parts of Hawaii (Wagner and Sohmer, 1999). Autumnberry is the most prevalent shrub in parts of southern Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and several other eastern states. Autumnberry is not hardy in the coldest parts of the United States and is therefore absent from the northern Plains and higher mountain areas.
Autumnberry is one of the few non-leguminous plants able, with the help of certain bacteria called Frankia, to fix Nitrogen. This allows it to thrive on impoverished or eroded soils and outcompete other shrubs on such sites. It is precisely for this reason that it was used widely to reclaim and stabilize old mine spoils, eroded hillsides, and newly constructed roadways. Such soil-deprived sites are where it remains most common today, accounting for its abundance in steep, hilly country that has been inappropriately cultivated or overgrazed, and in rocky, sandy, or gravelly areas where the soil is naturally poor.
Autumnberry grows in full sun or light shade. It does not successfully invade mesic hardwood forests but often does well in the sparse shade cast by oaks, hickories, and pines. Autumnberry’s competitive edge is further enhanced by its drought tolerance. Like many other exotic shrubs, it loses its foliage later than most native species, giving it an extended growing season but also making it more susceptible to frost damage.
Given the way that birds and mammals relish the fruit and spread its seeds, expect to see autumnberry become more and more abundant over the coming years.
Harvest and Preparation
Autumnberry has an unusually long season of availability. In 2006, I first picked the fruit on August 25; on November 12, even after several hard frosts, I found entire thickets still loaded. The peak season of harvest is roughly September 15 to October 10. The fruit persists later in seasons of a heavy crop.
When autumnberries first turn red they are rather hard, very tart, and astringent due to their tannin content. They can be eaten at this time but are too tart for most palates, although they do make fine jam or jelly. However, the fully ripe fruit are much better. As they sit on the bush they gradually become softer, sweeter, and less astringent. You can judge their ripeness by how easily they pop off their stems when picked; they do not detach easily when under-ripe. And you should taste-test them, for even when fully ripe their flavor varies substantially from one bush to the next.
This is one of the wild fruits that you can really stock up on. It grows in dense hedges along roadways or fence lines and turns abandoned farmlands into wild orchards. Every year you can find a good supply, and in very good years shameful amounts will rot on the bush. The autumnberry clusters often hang along the branches so densely that there is no space between one and the next, creating an elongated “mega-cluster” along the branch. Just one of these mega-clusters can contain several pounds of fruit, and single bushes can produce twenty to eighty pounds of fruit in bumper crop years.
An effective way to pick autumnberries is to hold the laden branch or mega-cluster over a container and loosen the berries with your fingers so they fall in. Try to do this without crushing too many berries and without loosening too many leaves and stems. You can pick autumnberries very fast this way; typical is one to three gallons per hour, depending mostly on the quality of the bush. The low, spreading form means that the bushes bear most of their fruit within easy reach, and often they are so low that I simply place a bowl on the ground beneath the branch as I pick. You can also pick the fruit by laying down a tarp or cloth and beating on the branches. For this the berries must be fully ripe and ready to detach.
As you collect autumnberries you will probably find a disturbing number of Japanese beetles going into your container. They love to hide between the fruit in the clusters, and due to their color are hard to spot there. I know of no good solution to this problem; indeed, these little pests are the biggest trouble with picking autumnberries, and sometimes I spend more time removing and avoiding them than I do picking the fruit.
Upon first turning red, the flavor of autumnberries reminds me of raspberries or pomegranates with the pucker of chokecherries. As they ripen the puckering quality fades, the fruit sweetens, and a hint of tomato flavor develops. I love to eat fully ripe autumnberries straight from the bush. I stuff my face with one handful after another for the first twenty minutes of picking. The seedshells are soft and contain a delicious nutty kernel that seems to disappear in your mouth as you chew. Some people swallow everything, but I spit out the masticated seedshells when I am done absorbing all the flavor possible, then reach for another handful.
I have a number of ways to use those autumnberries that actually do make it into my collecting container. They are good in pie, and they are the berry of choice for making fruit leather. In addition, autumnberries make good jam or jelly and have a most delicious juice.
For all the cooked products that I make, I strain out the seeds first. I do not cook or crush the berries before straining; all I do is try to get rid of the sticks, leaves, and beetles. Autumnberries go through my strainer very easily with little waste, although I may have to run them through an extra time or two to get all the pulp.
Straining will produce a beautiful red puree, but the juice and solids will quickly begin to separate. When this happens you will notice that autumnberry juice has an amazing quality: it is clear. Lycopene, the primary coloring agent, is not water soluble and so remains in the pulp. The solids coagulate into a mass, and this mass slowly shrinks as it releases liquid, almost as if repelling it. You can let a container of puree sit in the refrigerator for a few days and then carefully pour off the clear juice, saving the red pulp for fruit leather, jam, or other fun projects. Or you can keep the two together, mixing well before use. This autumnberry puree stores well frozen.
Once you taste the juice of ripe, sweet autumnberries, you may want to maximize your yield of it. If a better drink has passed my lips, I fail to recollect the experience. A glass of autumnberry juice appears deceivingly like slightly used dishwater—but upon careful inspection one will notice the faintest yellow tone, which hardly hints at the flavor swimming in it. Autumnberry juice is pleasantly acidic like orange juice and at least as sweet. However, juice from under-ripe fruit can be extremely tart.
To get as much juice as possible from your autumnberries, place the puree in a cloth suspended in a bucket and let it drip for a few days, keeping the whole apparatus in a cool place. Almost all the liquid should separate from the pulp without any squeezing involved, and then you can dispose of the solids (or use them, if you really want that lycopene). Sometimes the liquid doesn’t separate well—I’m not always sure why—and in these cases I keep the pulp for making other things. Freezing and thawing the puree sometimes seems to facilitate better juice separation.
Besides making a wonderful juice, autumnberry also makes excellent pies, cobblers, and other desserts. If the berries are on the sour side, I mix them with other milder fruits. One problem, however, is that the juice has a tendency to separate from the pulp while cooking and pool in the bottom of your pan. To prevent this, use a little more flour or cornstarch than usual and mix it well into the puree.
The tendency of the juice and pulp to separate affects all autumnberry products. Jam, for example, can get a unique texture and marbled appearance due to the pockets of clear liquid that separate while it sets. You can also make a most interesting tart but nearly colorless jelly from the juice.
If I am going to eat autumnberries out of season, my favorite way is in the form of fruit leather. The finest flavor is achieved using ripe, mild berries. For best results, use puree that has had little or none of its juice removed. Mix or beat it thoroughly just before spreading it on trays to dry. The smooth texture of the puree makes for a very fine-looking fruit leather, and the juiciness allows it to be spread very thinly and uniformly on the tray. However, because of the time of year that the fruit ripens, sun-drying is often impossible. I have also done it in the oven, on a rack near my woodstove, and in an electric food dehydrator. The thin layer of pulp dries relatively quickly, especially in the absence of skins. It produces a beautiful red fruit leather, rich in lycopene, that is coveted, bartered, and begged for on account of its flavor.
If our continent is going to be overrun by exotic invasive plants, I pray that there are more of them like autumnberry.