The tenacity of Autumn Olive
Autumn Olive, an Asian plant originally prized for its ability to control erosion and thrive in harsh environments, is quickly choking out native East Coast species. While it’s likely too late to eradicate it, there are ways to help manage it— one small bite at a time.
Fall means lawn aeration, and Mike Fox, owner of Bridgewater-based NonStop Landscaping, is busy roughing up his clients’ yards before sprinkling grass seed and pellets of fertilizer and lime.
It’s also the time when Autumn Olive, sometimes called Japanese Silverberry and a close cousin to Russian Olive, produces its prodigious red berries.
It's a plant that Fox and his team are sometimes tasked to control. “You can cut Russian Olive to the ground, but it’s like it makes it mad," Fox jokes. "It comes back saying, ‘Oh, if you’re going to do that, watch what I can do.’”
Planted in the U.S. to control erosion since at least the early 1900s, especially in areas that had been mined, Autumn Olive was initially prized for its hardiness and adaptability. Those are the same that reasons it may soon be declared a tier 3 noxious weed in Virginia.
Jacob Barney studies invasive plants at Virginia Tech. He’s seen the Asiatic shrub explode across the Commonwealth over the last decade, choking out native species as it crops up in rarely mowed or little grazed fields, along roadsides, and at the forests’ edge.
“Autumn Olive has a few characteristics that give it an advantage over many of our native species. Probably the primary one is that it’s a nitrogen fixer: in other words, it has a root associated microbial interaction that allows it to fix its own nitrogen, which is often the most limiting nutrient for plants. This allows it to establish and grow in some pretty harsh conditions where nutrients are not readily available, Barney says”
Then there are its berries. “It makes these fleshy, red fruits, often by the tens of thousands on any individual shrub. So birds, and other wildlife eat them and can disperse them pretty widely, so it allows the plant to spread readily, which it’s doing in a pretty astonishing way across the eastern U.S. now.”
That’s why Barney says the shrub is here to stay. Fortunately, there are methods to manage its spread. Like eating it. “The fruits are actually quite tasty, and have a pretty high concentration of lycopene, one of the compounds found in tomatoes that makes them so healthy. Gathering the fruits and making jams and jellies and other things, if you’re going to have to deal with it, at least there’s some benefit from it.”
Watching for the plant’s spiny thorns, pick four cups of Autumn Olive berries, wash, mash, and boil them in half cup of water for eight minutes. Using cheesecloth, strain the juice from the mash and add a cup and a half of sugar and about two tablespoons of pectin before boiling the mixture again for another minute and then allowing it to cool in a covered dish or jar.
You’re left with a sweet, pleasantly tart topping for ice cream or yoghurt. The bonus? Cooking the seeds renders them infertile.