One of the things I really look forward to about the fall is harvesting autumn olive berries (Elaeagnus umbellata), also called Autumnberry or Japanese Silverberry. They have a really delicious, sweet-tart, astringent flavor that sort of tastes to me like a hybrid between apple, pomegranate and cranberry. They're also one of our most abundant wild foods.
Usually found in meadows and areas of open, disturbed ground in much of the United States, autumn olive grows to about 10-15 feet tall and up to 20 feet wide. The leaves are green above and silvery underneath. Small, yellow-white, very fragrant star-shaped flowers bloom in early spring, and by fall a single tree produces pounds and pounds of fruit. The little red silver-flecked berries grow in clusters and ripen from September through October. (When identifying, as always, make sure you're 100% sure you're picking from the right plant. There are some mildly toxic honeysuckles that can look similar to autumn olive.)
Every year, my sister and I collect big bags of the berries and make batches of jam (everyone we know gets a jar in their Christmas box...if you're one of those people and you're reading this, I hope you aren't sick of it. If you are, please let us know and there will be more jam for us...).
The Autumn Olive Harvest has become a really fun tradition.
There is a dark side.
The Bad News
From an ecological perspective, autumn olive is kind of a nightmare.
Originally brought to the United States in 1830, autumn olive grew in popularity over the years as a source of food and habitat for birds and wildlife. It fixes nitrogen in the soil, can serve as an effective windbreak, and helps to limit erosion when planted strategically. And it's pretty.
Sounds good, right?
The thing is, while it's true that autumn olive provides those benefits, it also spreads rapidly and can ruin habitats by pushing out native plants and limiting biodiversity. Its dense branches create a lot of shade, making it hard or impossible for other meadow plants, successional woodland plants and native berry bushes to thrive if it starts taking over.
Autumn olive is an aggressive invasive, and it's really hard to control and get rid of. It can survive in just about any soil conditions, and it's drought resistant. If you try to cut it back, it grows in thicker. Unless you catch a plant very young, pulling it out by the roots usually isn't effective, as it'll just grow right back from even a small piece of root left behind. One tree can produce hundreds of easily germinated seeds.
It's sort of like the mythical Hydra. But a plant version that is visually appealing and produces delicious berries.
According to many people, the best way to get rid of autumn olive and stop it spreading once and for all is to cut it down and then repeatedly spread a very strong herbicide, like glyphosphate, directly onto the stump until you are sure it's dead.
I hope no ecologists get mad at me now, but... I'm just not cool with glyphosphate.
The Good News!
While you should most definitely NOT plant one of these guys or encourage their spreading, I think if you've got one (or several) of these plants already growing nearby, you should take full advantage of it and help to stop it from spreading by collecting as many berries as you can.
In autumn olive we have an abundant, nutritious and severely underutilized wild food crop. Did I mention the berries are really high in lycopene, a phytonutrient thought to help prevent cancer and cardiovascular disease? Tomatoes are prized as a source of lycopene, but autumn olive berries have about 17 times more per serving. They also contain vitamins C, E and A. Even Cornell University has been looking into autumn olive as a highly nutritious potential cash crop.
Unlike other wild edibles, we really don't have to worry about how much we harvest. We're doing both ourselves and our native habitats a favor if we can incorporate autumn olive berries into our diets. Each berry we take is one that will not germinate. So gather as many as you want! Tell your partner. Tell your friends. Make your kids do it!
The easiest way to harvest the berries is to run your hand along the branches and let the berries fall into your palm. You can also hold a bag or basket under the branch and do the same thing. The berries fall easily, and it's not hard to collect several pounds in just an hour. When you get them home, it's a good idea to let them sit for a while to give any hitchhiking bugs a chance to move along. I also do a quick pick-through of the berries to make sure I sift out any stems or shriveled/rotten ones, then just give them a quick rinse before storing.
Cool cool cool, so what do I DO with these fabulous berries?
One of the great things about autumn olive berries is that they keep well. Once rinsed and stored in the refrigerator, they can last up to a couple of weeks in my experience. They also freeze very well. So, if you don't have immediate plans for them, you can buy yourself some time by popping them in the 'fridge or freezer. Here are a couple of ways I love to use them (aside from just eating them raw, which I highly recommend):
Autumn Olive Jam
This jam is a really delicious way to preserve a large amount of berries. This recipe was our starting point when my sister and I first began making autumn olive jam, and it's still my favorite, but I've made a few tweaks:
- 8 cups autumn olive berries
- 1 cup water
- 1 package no-sugar needed fruit pectin (I use sure-jell) mixed with 1/4 cup sugar
- 1 cup organic sugar
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
Add the berries and water to a big pot and bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer until the berries are burst and very soft, about 15-20 minutes.
Run the mixture through a food mill (or press through a fine mesh sieve), then return the de-seeded berry mash to the pot, stir in the lemon juice, and bring to a boil.
Add the pectin and sugar mix and stir well.
Add the sugar and stir well.
Return the mixture to a boil and boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly to keep any bits from sticking to the bottom.
Remove from heat and spoon the mixture into prepared sterilized jars. (I use small 4 oz jars, and this recipe yields me about 12).
Cap the jars, add to a water bath, and process for 10 minutes. Remove and let the jars cool. (You should hear popping noises as the jars seal shut. You'll know they've been canned properly if the lid doesn't pop/move when you press on it.) Let cool and then enjoy!
Fruit Leather: Autumn olive fruit leather is basically the delicious fruit-roll-ups of your childhood, except healthy and way more delicious.
- 3 cups washed autumn olive berries
- 2 tbsp water
- 1 tbsp honey or sugar (optional but kind of nice)
Bring the berries and water to a gentle boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes or until the berries have all broken up a bit. Run the mash through a food mill into a bowl.
Next, mix in honey to taste (I used about 1 tbsp). Pour the mixture out onto a prepared baking tray (lined with Silpat or lightly greased wax paper) and spread evenly.
Bake at the lowest temperature of your oven until the leather no longer feels sticky. If you have a dehydrator, that will work too - just set it to 150F and run for about 4 hours. When finished, roll the sheet of fruit leather up and slice into rolls.
A few more ideas: Make them into a syrup for pancakes, use them in a compote, infuse them in vinegar to make a salad dressing or oxymel, mix them with a little vodka and honey to make a cordial, strain them through a food mill and use them as a pie filling or to make a sorbet, use them to flavor kombucha ... Essentially, any way you'd use berries will probably work out pretty well.
Important Notes: the only way to kill the seeds of autumn olive and make sure they don't germinate in the compost pile is to cook them. If you're making jam, fruit leather, etc., you'll probably end up cooking the seeds a bit before running the mash through a sieve or food mill. For things like a cordial, kombucha, etc., my advice is to throw the berries in a pan with a little liquid (after you've strained them out from whatever you're making) and just simmer them for a few minutes to make sure the seeds are rendered inert. After that, they should be perfectly safe to compost.
I also highly advise investing in a food mill if you're going to be working with these berries (they aren't very expensive, and you can usually find them along with other canning supplies in the grocery store). The seeds are rather large, and while they aren't a bother when just snacking on the raw berries, they'd be pretty unpleasant in a jam or tart, etc. Running the berries through a mill can save you a world of effort.
Also, when trying any wild food for the first time, eat only a small amount to begin with. Although I've never heard of an adverse reaction to autumn olive, it's always a good idea to use a little caution when trying out something new.
Be well, and happy harvesting,