It truly baffles me sometimes how unpopular this plant can be. In fact in some parts of the country there are groups that walk the woods cutting down all they see. Their efforts are to eradicate Autumn Olive from their area. I’ve seen so many pamphlets talking about Autumn Olive being a noxious invasive weed.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Autumn olive is a wonderful friut bearing bush that produces a enormous amount of berries each year. In fact the bush in this picture yeilded over 2 gallons of berries that only took about 30 min to harvest, and was a fun family day as well. There is something to be said about getting into the woods with the family and harvesting food. Autumn olive is high in lycopene a chemical known for promoting prostate healh. Tomatoes get the fame for containing lycopene, but Autumn olive contains 15 to 18 times more lycopene than tomatoes (think of that the next time you pass this on the trail). The USDA did test crops of Autumn Olive and to there surprise, yeilded 14-17 thousand lbs per acre without any pestisides or fertilizers. One thing that the USDA doesn’t like about Autumn Olive is the name, so to promote intrest and future sales, a name change to Autumnberry was suggested.
Autumn Olive can run the gambit from a large bush to a small tree but rarely reaches higher than 14 feet. Autumn Olive will have several trunks spreading out from the ground instead of one solid trunk. I have measured one autumn olive branch at 5 inches around, this being one of the largest I have encountered. Autumn Olive is a deciduous tree and its leaves are one of the easiest to spot once you get an eye for them. Autumnberry leafs are oval and come to a point, dark green in color (top) and silver (bottom). Autumn Olive has alternating leafs 2-3 inches in length that have either a slight wave or a curl to them. In summer Autumn Olive produces a round berry around the size of a large pea. They are green in color and will remain that way until they ripen in the fall. Ripe Autumn Olive berries are red in color with silver dots or flakes and are bitter and astringent as soon as they ripen due to their tannin content. I wait till they have been ripening on the tree for a week or 2. They will begin to lose their bitter taste and get a sweet tangy taste. A good test is how easy it is to remove the berry from the stem it should fall with minimal effort. Autumn olive can be mistaken for several other plants such as buffalo berry, wolf berry, and silver berry. They are all closely related shrubs and are edible as well.
The one shrub that can be mistaken for Autumn Olive is Tartarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica and L. x bella). The leafs of this shrub have no silver on its underside, and the berries are shiny red with no silver flakes on them. These berries are toxic and can make you sick. Take the time to carefully identify this shrub to ensure you are harvesting the correct berry.
Uses edible and medicinal
When harvesting Autumn Olive the berry should fall from the stem with little effort. You should taste a few from one shrub if they taste ready (similar to a slightly tart grape), harvest from that shrub. Each shrub you move to you should try a few to ensure ripeness. After harvesting you can simply snack on them as is, whole berry seed and all. Alternatively a cup full can be smashed and filtered through a cloth or a bundle of grass and drank. Autumn Olive makes a great refreshing drink, but remember lycopene is not water soluble and remains in the pulp . The leftover mash can then be made into fruit leather by making paddies and left in the sun to dry for a few days. A screen placed over the patties will deter flies or other bugs from landing on your fruit treat. They are good in pies and bannocks, the berries also make great jams and jellies The berries contain vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, potassium, and iron as well as essential fatty acids and bioflavonoids. It also contains the carotenoids B-carotene, phytoene, and a- and b-cryptoxanthin and lycopene. Lycopene is currently of interest to medical researchers as it has exhibited possibilities as a deterrent to heart disease and cancers of the prostate, cervix, the gastrointestinal tract, and possibly ovarian cancer. The fruit also contains malic acid like the crab apple, and when fully ripe has glucose and fructose present The bark from Autumn Olive comes off in nice long strips and can be made into decent cordage. It is not the strongest stuff in the world but will work for some light weight jobs. Another perk of Autumn Olive is that it can fix nitrogen levels in soil therefore it can help trees like walnuts and hickories.