WHAT ARE AUTUMN OLIVE BERRIES?
The autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) scraggly, weedy-looking tree that grows in untended fields and vacant lots. Children love the way the lower branches arch over to touch the ground, to create shady hideaways. And back when I had chickens, they loved to lounge in the shady cover of the trees and while away the day nibbling at the berries.
The autumn olive is considered an invasive exotic. The tree produces a fantastic volume of berries, whose seeds are spread by birds. While many experts advise against planting these trees on purpose, others are quick to point out its immense value for wildlife food and cover.
These trees are generally not found on well tended agricultural land, though they can occasionally be seen in fencerows. You will find them only in long-neglected fields or vacant lots.
Autumn olive trees are abundant in my small rural lake community—in which there are about 1,000 lots, many of which have been vacant for decades. These lots are owned by absentee owners, some of whom live in Ecuador or Panama, and who may not have visited their properties in decades. In addition, several properties near my community are small acreages whose owners have been content to allow a portion of their land to return to brush—perhaps for the benefit of wildlife.
Strangely, no one seems to know about the trees’ abundant and healthful fruit.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF AUTUMN OLIVE BERRIES
Autumn olive berries are a nutritional powerhouse. The berries are high in carotenoids lycopene, phytoene, a- and B-cryptoxanthin and beta carotene, which are powerful anti-oxidants.
Until autumn olive berries were “discovered,” the food with the highest known lycopene content was tomatoes. But autumn olive berries have been discovered to have about 17 times the lycopene content of tomatoes!
The USDA has been looking into the possibilities for commercial organic production of the berries, and its test plots near Beltsville, Maryland, have achieved productivity of 3,600–12,600 pounds per acre.
There is some commercial production of autumn olive berries, and a great deal of interest in their health benefits, because of their tremendous nutritional value.
One source on foraging and wild foods remarks, “It truly baffles me how the autumn olive remains one of the biggest wild food secrets in North America.”
Why have they gone so long unnoticed? Well, one reason is that you can have an autumn olive tree growing right in your yard and not notice the fruit—for years! The berries cling close along the branches and are often largely hidden by the leaves. I first noticed the berries during a year in which they were particularly abundant, and I happened to make a close inspection of the back fencerow after they had ripened.
HOW TO RECOGNIZE AUTUMN OLIVE
Autumn olive trees can be recognized from quite a distance by the grayish appearance of the leaves. The berries too are distinctive: They are about one-quarter inch in size, a light red color, and they are stippled with tiny dots.
Many years ago, I discovered that the trees growing in fencerow behind my house were so thickly laden with red berries that they resembled ropes of red pearls. I tasted the berries and rather liked the flavor, so I blithely decided that they must be some form of wild cherry. The neighbor children who helped me pick them were delighted by the “cherry” sauce I served up with the pork chops and winter squash, as well as the “cherry” jam I made from some of the berries.
My own kids were a little older at the time and were a little less impressed. One of them even hinted that she didn’t think they were really cherries.
Some years later, I decided to bring some of my “cherry” jam to the local garden club meeting for club members to sample. For the first time, I began to have reservations about the real identity of this berry.
Granted, no one had died, so far, from my “cherry” sauces and jams, or even suffered a stomach upset, but perhaps the ladies would be more wary than me. I could see how poisoning a few of my community’s more prominent and respectable ladies might ruin me socially.
I did many online searches and made several calls to local nature centers, in an effort to get a positive identification of this tree, but after a couple of weeks, I was still coming up empty. Finally, one of the women in the garden club suggested I contact the botanist at a nearby showplace botanical garden, Powell Gardens.
It didn’t take long for the Powel Gardens botanist to provide and answer. I began describing the tree, and then mentioned that the berries were stippled with tiny dots.
“Hold it right there!” he said. “That’s autumn olive!”
“Are the berries edible?” I asked.
“Yes. In fact they’re good for you,” the botanist told me.
Well, was I ever glad to hear that! So the ladies at the garden club got to sample my jam, and the local newspaper printed a picture of our “tasting”—along with a brief article, which, it seemed to me, kind of made fun of me for “making food products from unknown plants.”
The tree’s grayish leaves and the dots that stipple the red fall berries should be sufficient for a positive identification.
There is one autumn olive tree growing in my neighborhood that produces yellow berries, but these seem to be highly unusual. I have seen only one such tree among the hundreds in my vicinity.
HOW TO PICK AUTUMN OLIVE BERRIES
Autumn olive berries begin to ripen to red at the end of summer and continue ripening into the fall, until they are ruined by frost. They continue to grow sweeter and more flavorful as frost approaches, so they are probably best picked beginning about a month before the first frost—before they drop from the trees or are eaten by birds, but after they are well ripened and most sweet.
If you have several trees to choose from, taste the berries from several trees and choose the trees with the sweetest, most flavorful berries. The flavor varies somewhat from tree to tree. (A person will also tend to choose the trees with the most abundant fruit, for easy picking.)
A heavily fruiting tree will have long branches that are thick with berries, which can be easily stripped off into bags or baskets by running your hand along the branch. Many fruiting branches are close to the ground, if not actually bent to the ground, so picking is easy. You can probably collect a couple of gallons of berries in an hour or so.
Once you return home, wash the berries and pick out any leaves and twigs (and bugs) that may have dropped into your basket.
FOOD PRODUCTS FROM AUTUMN OLIVE BERRIES
You may be wondering what autumn olive berries taste like. Descriptions are varied. Some producers of the berries have described the flavor as somewhat like raspberries, or a cross between a currant and a pie cherry. They don’t.
I have never seen a description of the flavor that is accurate.
Autumn olive berries, more than anything else, taste like tomatoes—only a lot stronger.
You will probably not notice the tomato flavor if you eat the raw berries. The “tomato” flavor comes out in cooking, and its intensity alone makes it hard to recognize.
When the berries are cooked to make sauce, the house smells a lot like you are cooking tomato sauce. When small amount of autumn olive berry sauce is added to a soup, the soup will taste exactly as if tomatoes had been added to the soup. The main difference is, it takes much less autumn olive berry sauce than tomato sauce to provide this amount of flavor.
In another of my experiments in cooking with autumn olive berries, I made the sauce into spaghetti sauce and served it my teenage daughter and her boyfriend. The boyfriend could not tell any difference between the autumn olive berry sauce and regular tomato sauce.
My daughter and I could tell the difference. First, the flavor was far more intense. Second, there was a hint of tannins, as if a little black tea had been added to the sauce.
Another difference—to me, at least—was that the autumn olive berry sauce was far more filling. It’s almost as if the berries are so packed with nutrition that it takes far less to satisfy the appetite.
The main problem with using autumn olive berries to make spaghetti sauce is that the flavor is that is somewhat overwhelms.
My thinking about these berries is that they are the basis of a cuisine that has yet to be invented. Tomatoes, in the centuries after their discovery by Europeans, gained acceptance very slowly, partly because, as a member of the nightshade family, they were believed to be poisonous.
Also, if you think about it, you can see that the flavor of tomatoes does not resemble the flavor of any fruit or berry traditionally eaten by Europeans. Like corn, tomatoes were an introduction from the New World. In fact, about a third of the crops now grown in the United States were unknown prior to the discovery of the New World. A short list of these includes corn, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, peppers, manioc (tapioca), pineapples, cashews, avocados, quinoa, chocolate, and vanilla.
Even the green bean (Phaseolus spp.) was unknown, prior to the discovery of the Americas. Old World beans are believed to have been fava beans or cowpeas, or, in the case of the beans the beans mentioned by ancient Roman authors Virgil and Columella, the hyacinth bean (Dolichus spp.). The green bean was first introduced to Europe upon Columbus’s return from his second voyage to the New World, in 1493, where he had seen fields planted with beans he described as “different from ours.”
This makes you wonder what Europeans—and the rest of the world—were eating, prior to the discovery of the Americas.
Autumn olive berries—after preparing as a sauce—are an excellent addition to soups and stews, when tomato flavor is desired. Try adding about a cup of the sauce to a pot of soup, and you’ll see what I mean. It will make the soup taste like you added quite a lot of tomatoes.
Home gardeners and canners will occasionally have a year in which tomato production is poor, and putting up autumn olive berry sauce could be a good “extender” for tomato sauces and salsas.
I personally think that autumn olive berries could be added (judiciously) to home canned tomato sauces and salsas, with advantage. Since autumn olive berries do not ripen until early fall, you won’t be able to try this experiment until late in the season.
Autumn olive berry sauce would make an excellent pizza sauce. Pizza is a food that includes so many ingredients and relatively little tomato sauce, that the substitution of autumn olive berry sauce would enhance, rather than overwhelm, the other ingredients.
Autumn olive berries, perhaps surprisingly, make a delicious jam and fruit leathers. Sweetened, they even make a plausible “cherry” sauce to go with winter squash and pork chops.
AUTUMN OLIVE BERRIES—A FOOD WAITING FOR A CUISINE
Dozens of formerly unknown foods were adopted into worldwide cooking traditions after the discovery of the Americas. Imagine Italian food before the discovery of the tomato, or Italian cuisine before pasta was introduced from the Orient!
While I don’t expect autumn olive berries to become central to any new worldwide cuisine, I do think it represents at least a small food revolution waiting to happen!
If you like to forage for wild foods, here is a soup recipe that can be adapted to include whatever wild greens are available.
3 cups water
¼ cup wild rice
2-3 pieces of beef jerky
Wild greens, such as nettles, lamb’s quarters, purslane, shiso, and dandelion
1 bay leaf
2 chopped scallions (or wild onions or garlic)
¼-1/2 cup autumn olive berry sauce
salt or soy sauce to taste
Bring to a boil and simmer until rice is done. This recipe will produce a richly tomato-flavored vegetable and rice soup or, if lots of wild greens are added, a vegetable/rice side dish to serve with meats.
rose-the planner from Toronto, Ontario-Canada on July 23, 2013:
I think I have seen these types of trees with these berries before but I had no idea that they were even edible. This is truly fascinating especially the health benefits. The soup recipe looks sounds really good. Thank you for sharing. (Voted Up) -Rose
Deonne Anderson from Florence, SC on July 23, 2013:
Since I have been in Central VA, I have noticed at least (3) berries that are unknown to me. As I walk with my two dogs, they are unable to answer my questions as to whether the berries are edible. I'm wondering if I may have seen the Autumn Olive Berry. I enjoyed reading about your experiences with the berries. Voted up and useful.
Sharon Vile (author) from Odessa, MO on July 23, 2013:
Thanks! Here is a link to a USDA map showing the distribution of autumn olive in the US: http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=elum
It says you can click on the map for county distributions, if available.
Autumn olive is considered an invasive exotic, but when our local newspaper ran the article about it, people commented that they'd never seen it here--even though it's quite abundant. This is because you won't find it on well tended farmland. You also won't find it in real woodlands. You see the trees mainly where land has gone to brush.
Once you find such a tree, you'll recognize it at 100 yards forever after, because of the grayish foliage.
Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on July 23, 2013:
Very interesting. You provided so much information about this plant that I was totally unaware of. I have never seen it until this article.
Is it found only in certain parts of the country? I may have missed that.
I loved the description saying they appeared like "ropes of red pearls. "
Voted up and shared.
Angels are on the way to you this morning ps