Autumn Olive

Name:  Autumn Olive

Botanical Name: Elaeagnus umbellata

Form: small, shrubby tree

Parts Used: fruit, browse

 

Citation: Guenther, K. (2017, January 12) Autumn olive as wildlife food [Web log post.] Retrieved: readers supply the date cited, from http://wildfoods4wildlife.com

Autumn Olive drupes, the stems being still attached is a sign of not being quite ripe, even though the fruit is red.

Getting Started

This is a great first foraging experience for beginner foragers and kids, too! It is so easy to find, easy to identify and easy to harvest in quantity. Sometimes, young shrubs do have some large, but avoidable thorns along the branches to be aware of.

Unfortunately, the reason this wild food is so easy to find is because it is a non-native invasive tree—one that we are NOT seeking to further distribute in Virginia. That being said, there are worse non-native invasive trees—tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus) holds the distinction of most egregious. Wildlife mammals and birds regularly encounter autumn olive in the wild, and it is abundant and easy for them to find.  The fruit  ranks  #27 on our Favorite Fruits list. Browse is not as popular, ranking down around #160.

Originally from Asia, this tree was intentionally planted as a wildlife food source— which it is— but it adapted better to our lands than anyone expected at the time. Aside from plain over-running the landscape and displacing more beneficial native trees, it can change ecosystems it is introduced into because it is one of the few non-legume plants that fixes nitrogen into the soil, rather than depleting nitrogen.

Because this tree sprouts and thrives well in a variety of habitats, you will need to be careful not to accidentally introduce it onto a property where it does not already exist. Check with your rehab facility about how they can manage for this—or perhaps you will need to avoid harvesting the fruit at all. But if the berries are contained properly and waste from the animals is not put back out into the surrounding environment, seeding in the area may be able to be avoided.

Elaeagnaceae  (Oleaster family)

Elaeagnus (Oleaster genus)

AND

Shepherdia (Buffaloberry genus) A different common wildlife food genus, yet related to autumn olive.

Common name Virginia Elaeagnus Species Origins Rare Plant Status
Russian olive Elaeagnus angustifolia non-native Not rare
cherry silverberry Elaeagnus multiflora non-native Not rare
thorny olive Elaeagnus pungens non-native Not rare
autumn olive Elaeagnus umbellata non-native Not rare
Distribution of <i>Elaeagnus umbellata</i> Thunb.
Range map: USDA, NRCS. (2015). The PLANTS Database, National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA. Retrieved on a variety of dates from 2015-2017 from http://plants.usda.gov

Key Features to Look For

In addition to using the identification guide of your choice, here are a couple of features you should see on autumn olive:

  • silver dots or flecks on red berries
  • berries have stems, and mature fruit drops its stem easily
  • silvery undersides on somewhat thick leaves
  • boughs that bend, even to the ground
  • alternate leaves and alternate branching
  • spines on branches, more on younger trees
  • single seed in the berry (drupe)
  • trumpet-shaped white-yellow flower clusters
  • small, shrub-like trees with multiple trunks

About This Species

The most common shrub one could confuse for autumn olive is probably one of the many honeysuckle shrubs that grown in similar habitats, often alongside autumn olive. Honeysuckle berries are a similar size and color, but do not have silver flecks on the berries. Honeysuckle berries are fused in pairs, while autumn olive berries are single and not fused with another berry, even though they are heavily clustered together sometimes.

Flower Description:  The creamy-white flowers look like tiny trumpets. Four sepals (which you might think of as petals) join to form a cone towards the base of the flower. The flowers clump in clusters. Blooms in early May.

The flower’s long cones open into the 4 sepals, best seen from the side view.

Leaf Description: Leaves are about 2-3 inches (6-7 cm) long. The top side is a dark green, semi-shiny. The underside is a silver-white. Leaves have smooth edges (margins). Leaves are alternate along the stem.

Underside of autumn olive leaf. Silvery and lighter than top side.

Seed/ Fruit Size: No relation to the table olives we eat, this berry is a drupe with a single seed. It is a dull red/purple/brown with silver flecks or dots.  The fruit is about 3/8 inch (9 mm) round with silver dots.The fruit ripens long after the berries turn red. They sweeten up more after first frost. If the stem sticks with the berry, the fruit is not quite fully ripe.

Harvest

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
winter winter late winter early spring spring late spring early summer summer late summer early fall fall late fall
fruit x x x x
browse x x x x x x x x x x x x x x x

Does this lend itself as a good enrichment item?   Absolutely! No guilt in hacking away at these trees! Harvest branches when in berry and install in enclosures for animals and birds to snack at will. At the cutting site, wrap branches in a sheet to minimize knocking off the berries during transport.

Nutrition: From a nutritional perspective, autumn olive has its merits. It has much as 17 times the lycopene antioxidant content as another lycopene-laden food—tomatoes (Elpel, 2013).

Harvesting Fruit:  The fruit clusters so heavily on the branches that it is easy to pull the stem through your hand and pull off handfuls of the berries. Work the branches over a sheet or bucket to catch the fruit. If you find berries are holding tight to the branch, they are not ripe. They will get easier to dislodge over time. Come back in a week and try again. These shrubs hold their fruit a long time, the harvest window is long. Like many fruits, they may sweeten somewhat after the first frost, so if the animal patients seem to avoid eating them, try harvesting a different batch after frost and see if they like that better.

Storing Prepared Fruit

Commercial clamshell berry containers are great for storing fruit because the rigid plastic keeps fruit from getting crushed and they also have small holes in them which control the humidity in the container. This slows the fruit from drying out too quickly, but allows air circulation to reduce molding.

Autumn olive berries keep well in re-used commercial berry containers in the refrigerator for one to two weeks.

If at all possible, use these berries fresh. Frozen fruits will thaw to be dark and mushy, but if you really need to freeze them you can, knowing that the texture will be greatly compromised upon thawing. Nutrients will be preserved. Spread berries in a single layer on a cookie sheet and place in freezer for 1 day. Once frozen, repackage them into zipping freezer baggies (3 mils or thicker) or glass jars to keep them from drying out, remove as much air as possible from the baggie, label and store in freezer until needed—no more than 1 year. Avoid freezing, thawing and refreezing as might happen in a door of a freezer.

See more detailed instructions under the tab “Food Harvest, Process and Storage.”

Harvesting Browse

Browse as a term used on this website refers to the twigs and small branches, with or without leaves or needles, of trees, shrubs, vines and other woody stemmed plants.  Browse can also refer to bark, for the animals that gnaw on bark.

Small trees cannot tolerate very much cutting and survive. The best time to harvest browse for the health of the tree is late fall to winter, but that may not be when you need the browse. The best limbs to remove are ones that rub together and cause abrasions that can make the tree vulnerable to insect damage. Or, cut branches that are overcrowded or hang low to the ground. Prune branches back to the base where the branch meets the trunk to minimize future insect damage to the tree.

Dip pruning shears into a bleach water solution (1:3) to minimize transferring tree diseases from one tree to the next.

Place the cut end of the browse in a bucket of water as soon as possible after cutting- ideally taking a bucket of water with you as you harvest because the branch will start to close itself off the instant it is injured. Then keep the branches in water as much as possible prior to feeding, which ideally means even during transport. And keep cut browse buckets in the shade.

Browse cuttings are best fed to animals right away, they do not store well for more than a day before the leaves start to wilt and dry out, especially if it is hot.

Be sure to read the section about cyanide poisoning before you harvest any browse.

Other Species

There is a lot of similarity in the four Elaeagnus species especially when you look at the leaves. Fruits differ somewhat. All have a silvery sheen on the underside of the leaf and silver dots on the berries.

There is another genus of shrub, not in Virginia though, that very closely resembles Elaeagnus and that is buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea). It, too, has red berries with silver scales or flecks and is usable for a wildlife food. The leaves are opposite, rather than alternate like Elaeagnus.

The following pictures discern the difference between bush honeysuckle berries and autumn olive fruit. Fused-berry honeysuckle (left) vs. silver-flecked autumn olive (right). Often growing in same areas together.

Fruit of honeysuckle bush is fused together.
Fruit of autumn olive is not fused and berries have silver flecks.

Feed Autumn Olive to:

olive

(Elaeagnus spp.)

browse/bark

Deer, White-tailed

Odocoileus virginianus

olive

(Elaeagnus spp.)

fruit

Bear, American Black

Ursus americanus

Cottontail, Eastern

Sylvilagus floridanus

Deer, White-tailed

Odocoileus virginianus

Elk, Rocky Mountain

Cervus elaphus

Mouse, Common White-footed

Peromyscus leucopus

Mouse, Deer

Peromyscus maniculatus nubiterre

Opossum, Virginia

Didelphis virginiana

Raccoon, Northern

Procyon lotor

Skunk, Spotted

Spilogale putorius

Skunk, Striped

Mephitis mephitis

Squirrel, Eastern Fox

Sciurus niger

Bluebird, Eastern

Sialia sialis

Cardinal, Northern

Cardinalis cardinalis

Catbird, Gray

Demetella carolinensis

Chickadee, Black-capped

Poecile atricapilla

Crow, American

Corvus brachyrhynchos

Dove, Mourning

Zenaida macroura

Finch, House

Carpodacus mexicanus

Finch, Purple

Carpodacus purpureus

Grackle, Common

Quiscalus quiscula

Grosbeak, Evening

Coccothraustes vespertinus

Junco, Dark-eyed

Junco hyemalis

Mockingbird, Northern

Mimus polyglottos

Robin, American

Turdus migratorius

Siskin, Pine

Carduelis pinus

Sparrow, Fox

Passerella iliaca

Sparrow, House

Passer domesticus

Sparrow, Song

Melospiza melodia

Sparrow, White-throated

Zonotrichia albicollis

Starling, European

Sturnus vulgaris

Swallow, Tree

Tachycineta bicolor

Thrush, Hermit

Catharus guttatus

Thrush, Wood

Hylocichla mustelina

Towhee, Eastern

Pipilo erythrophthalmus

Veery

Catharus fuscescens

Warbler, Yellow-rumped

Dendroica coronata

Waxwing, Cedar

Bombycilla cedrorum

Bobwhite, Northern

Colinus virginianus

Grouse, Ruffed

Bonasa umbellus

Grouse, Sharp-tailed

Tympanuchus phasianellus

Mallard

Anas platyrhynchos

Pheasant, Ring-necked

Phasianus colchicus

Turkey, Wild

Meleagris gallopavo

olive, autumn

(Elaeagnus umbellata)

browse/bark

Deer, White-tailed

Odocoileus virginianus

olive, autumn

(Elaeagnus umbellata)

fruit

Bear, American Black

Ursus americanus

Opossum, Virginia

Didelphis virginiana

Raccoon, Northern

Procyon lotor

Skunk, Spotted

Spilogale putorius

Skunk, Striped

Mephitis mephitis

Bluebird, Eastern

Sialia sialis

Cardinal, Northern

Cardinalis cardinalis

Catbird, Gray

Demetella carolinensis

Chickadee, Black-capped

Poecile atricapilla

Dove, Mourning

Zenaida macroura

Finch, House

Carpodacus mexicanus

Finch, Purple

Carpodacus purpureus

Grackle, Common

Quiscalus quiscula

Grosbeak, Evening

Coccothraustes vespertinus

Junco, Dark-eyed

Junco hyemalis

Mockingbird, Northern

Mimus polyglottos

Robin, American

Turdus migratorius

Sparrow, Fox

Passerella iliaca

Sparrow, House

Passer domesticus

Sparrow, Song

Melospiza melodia

Sparrow, White-throated

Zonotrichia albicollis

Starling, European

Sturnus vulgaris

Swallow, Tree

Tachycineta bicolor

Thrush, Hermit

Catharus guttatus

Thrush, Wood

Hylocichla mustelina

Towhee, Eastern

Pipilo erythrophthalmus

Veery

Catharus fuscescens

Warbler, Yellow-rumped

Dendroica coronata

Waxwing, Cedar

Bombycilla cedrorum

Bobwhite, Northern

Colinus virginianus

Grouse, Ruffed

Bonasa umbellus

Mallard

Anas platyrhynchos

Pheasant, Ring-necked

Phasianus colchicus

Turkey, Wild

Meleagris gallopavo

olive, russian

(Elaeagnus angustifolia)

fruit

Cottontail, Eastern

Sylvilagus floridanus

Deer, White-tailed

Odocoileus virginianus

Elk, Rocky Mountain

Cervus elaphus

Mouse, Common White-footed

Peromyscus leucopus

Mouse, Deer

Peromyscus maniculatus nubiterre

Squirrel, Eastern Fox

Sciurus niger

Crow, American

Corvus brachyrhynchos

Dove, Mourning

Zenaida macroura

Siskin, Pine

Carduelis pinus

Sparrow, White-crowned

Zonotrichia leucophrys

Bobwhite, Northern

Colinus virginianus

Grouse, Ruffed

Bonasa umbellus

Grouse, Sharp-tailed

Tympanuchus phasianellus

Mallard

Anas platyrhynchos

Pheasant, Ring-necked

Phasianus colchicus

Turkey, Wild

Meleagris gallopavo

Book References:

Elpel, T.J. (2013) Botany in a Day (APG). Pony, Montana: Hops Press, LLC.

Martin, A.C., Zim, H.S., Nelson, A.L. (1951). American Wildlife and Plants: A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits. New York: Dover Publications.

Scott, M. (2013). Songbird Diet Index. National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, St. Cloud, MN.

On-line references:

Munger, Gregory T. 2003. Elaeagnus umbellata. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online].
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer).
Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [2016, December 7].

USDA, NRCS. 2015. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov, 24 November 2015). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA.

Virginia Botanical Associates. (Accessed November 2015). Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora (http://www.vaplantatlas.org). c/o Virginia Botanical Associates, Blacksburg.