Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is a tasty edible wild fruit that ripens late in the fall. The plants are nitrogen fixers, which means they can grow on incredibly poor soil. Combine that with exceptional cold hardiness, and they’re the perfect fruit to forage where little else will grow.
Autumn olive, scientific name Elaeagnus umbellata, is also called Japanese silverberry, spreading oleaster, autumn elaeagnus, or autumnberry. The ripe berries of the autumn olive tree are crimson in color and have a sweet yet pleasantly tart flavor, making them ideal for use in both savory dishes and dessert recipes.
Autumn olives are highly nutritious and are an excellent source of the antioxidant lycopene as well as vitamins A, C, and E. Their high lycopene content (like tomatoes) inspired quite a few autumn olive ketchup recipes amoung forager friends, and they’re all delicious.
In addition to having myriad culinary uses, there’s a practical reason to forage for autumn olives: The shrub Elaeagnus umbellata is a major invasive species in North America.
Originally from eastern Asia (where the plant is considered non-invasive), autumn olive shrubs first brought to the eastern United States in the mid-1800s, where they used to prevent soil erosion and as a decorative shrub in gardens.
Elaeagnus umbellata spreads quickly because of its hardiness and dense concentration of seeds — a single shrub can yield around 200,000 seeds, potentially producing up to 80 pounds of fruit!
Where to Find Autumn Olive
Identifying autumn olive
Autumn olive trees are fairly large, they typically range in height from 10 to 18 feet tall and the mature shrub can reach a width of 30 feet.
As is typical with an invasive species, autumn olive trees grow quickly — the shrub begins producing fruit when it’s three years old and has an average fruit-producing lifespan of 40 years.
Autumn Olive Leaves
Depending on where you live, autumn olive leaves first begin to appear in March and throughout early May, with each leaf growing from 2 to 4 inches in length.
The leaves are an elongated oval, or elliptical, shape and grow alternately (this means that one leaf grows from each plant node on alternate sides of the branch). The edges of the autumn olive leaf are classified as being undulate, or wavy, and has an entire margin, meaning the leaf has no teeth or serration marks.
As you can see in the pictures below, the topside of the leaf is a true green, while the underside is more of a slate green flecked with small golden-brown spots.
You’ll also notice the underside of the leaf has a rougher, scaly texture while the topside is comparatively smooth.
While the leaves are relatively non-descript from a distance, looking at the undersides will really help you identify Elaeagnus species.
Autumn Olive Bark
The twigs on a young autumn olive tree are a lighter shade of brown with a silvery patina, you’ll also see small tawny-colored scales speckling the branches. The thorns on young branches are typically quite long, so take care when you’re scouting out possible foraging locations!
As the tree ages and grows, the color of the bark turns to a light gray or grayish-brown color. You’ll notice that the bark on mature autumn olive trees is more fibrous and that it peels off in long, narrow strips.
Autumn Olive Flowers
The blooms from the autumn olive tree have a strong floral scent — the aroma is often compared to lilies. You’re most likely to smell them from April through June, when they’re in full bloom.
The tubular flowers are light yellow or cream-colored with bright yellow stamens; each flower has four petals. The blooms typically grow in clusters of 1 to 10 flowers.
Autumn Olive Fruits
Unripe autumn olive fruits, or autumn berries, are small and silvery. Once the fruit has fully matured — in September and October — the berries turn a bright speckled red or pink.
Autumn Olive Look-Alikes
Autumn olives are fairly easy to identify but there are a few look-alikes to be aware of. When in doubt, remember that autumn olive trees will always have alternate leaves and small scales covering the bark, the underside of the leaf, and the fruit.
Because they both produce red berries, invasive or bush honeysuckle (Diervilla spp.) is sometimes mistaken for autumn olive. Most noticeably, invasive honeysuckle is much smaller, reaching only 3 to 5 feet in both length and width. Unlike the autumn olive tree, which has alternate leaves, honeysuckle leaves grow opposite to one another and there are no silvery scale-like marks on the leaves or bark.
Other Russian olives
The Russian olive tree (E. angustiolia) is related to the autumn olive tree, but is considerably taller and is a single or multi-stemmed tree. Both sides of Russian olive leaves are silvery and the shape is narrower than leaves from the autumn olive tree.
Harvesting autumn olive
Autumn olive fruit is at its sweetest when it’s been allowed to fully ripen on the stem. While your mileage may vary depending on where you live, I can typically harvest these berries all the way through December. The longer you can wait, especially if you can hold off until after the first frost, the tastier autumn olive berries will become.
A word of warning: Unripe autumn olive berries have an intensely astringent flavor and can cause stomach upset for some people.
These berries can be somewhat tedious to pick one-by-one, so I recommend gently shaking them directly from the branch into a bucket, removing any smalls twigs or broken leaves from the berry pile as you work. If you plan on processing the berries for jam (or any other recipe which involves a sieve or straining step) you don’t have to be as careful picking out extraneous bits of autumn olive detritus.
Recipes Using Autumn Olives
Autumn olive berries have a deep, jammy flavor, making them ideal for dessert recipes and homemade condiments. My kids love it when we make autumn berry fruit leather — it’s an activity the whole family can do together.
If you’re looking for autumn olive inspiration, give these recipes a try!
- Autumn Olive Ketchup from Edible Pioneer Valley
- Autumn Olive Cookies from Edible Wild Food
- Lemon and Autumn Olive Tart from Edible Wild Food
- Autumn Olive Fruit Leather from The Cook’s Cook
Looking for more tasty fruits to forage this fall?