Autumn olive berries are a magical fruit that can be found in the fall months. These berries have been used to make teas and jellies, but they also serve as an herb for maintaining overall health. In this blog post, we’ll talk about identifying, harvesting, and enjoying the many benefits of Autumn Olive Berries.
Identifying Autumn Olive
Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is also known as autumnberry, Japanese silverberry, umbellata oleaster, autumn elaeagnus or spreading oleaster.
Autumn Olive trees are not hard to identify if you know what to look for. Growing upwards of 16 feet, these medium-sized deciduous shrubs, native to Asia, were purposely introduced into the U.S. in the 1830’s. They were brought here and were commonly planted for wildlife food, shelter belts, erosion control, wasteland reclamation, wildlife habitat, and for gardens as an ornamental.
Autumn olive shrubs produce alternate green leaves that are oval shaped with finely pointed tips. The leaves are darker green on top with beautiful silvery undersides. The margins of the leaves are wavy but do not have teeth. Autumn olive leaves can grow up to ten centimeters in length (four inches). They appear in March through April depending on location.
The flowers are borne in the leaf axils in clusters of 1-7. They are pale yellowish-white, heavily fragrant, and have a four-lobed corolla 1 cm long.They are an important source of nectar for pollinators such as bees and other insects.
Autumn olive’s abundant fruits are silvery with brown scales when young and ripen to a deep red with silvery or brown speckles in September and October. They may be more or less the shape of very tiny olives, but I think they got their name because the leaves of autumn olive resemble that of olive tree leaves. The delicious fruits are eaten by a variety of birds, insects and mammals (myself included).
Each autumn olive berry has one seed that is pointed at one end and has lines running along its length.
*A note about spitting out seeds – As I’m out foraging these yummy fruits, I often snack on them as I go. I’ve heard other foragers say that they spit the seeds out when eating in the field. This is not a good idea since the autumn olive is considered an invasive species in much of the US. I simply eat the berry, seeds and all. If this is not to your liking, carry a small container to deposit your seeds in, but never spit them on the ground as this runs the risk of speading this plant.
Autumn Olive is shade intolerant and prefers dry sites, so you will not typically see it in wet areas or dense forests. Rather you will often find it in open woods, along forest edges, roadsides, sand dunes, and other disturbed areas. Autumn olive grows in many countries.
Autumn Olive Look Alikes
Autumn olive is easily confused with Russian olive, which has many similar characteristics. Unlike autumn olive, Russian olive often has stiff peg-like thorns and has silvery scales coating both sides of its mature leaves.
Is Autumn Olive Invasive?
Autumn olive is an aggressively invasive hedgerow plant, and should not be spread on purpose. This plant can and should be harvested of it’s fruit without restraint. There’s plenty to go around for humans and wildlife alike.
Harvesting Autumn Olive Berries
Look for autumn olive in disturbed areas, in sunny fields, and at the edge of woodland or forest clearings. You might also find them in abandoned lots and city parks.
Autumn olive berries have a pleasant sour tanginess when fully ripe, but when underripe are unpleasantly astringent and unpalateable. Their red color is not a sufficient indicator of ripeness. The best way to determie ripeness is to become aquainted with your area and know what time of year they typically are ripe, as well as by taste and feel. The fruit should be soft and plump when ready for harvest. Autumn olive berries are usually ready around late summer through autumn.
To collect autumn olive berries, hold a large bowl or container under a branch laden with berries, and with your other hand, run it gently down the branch. If the berries are ripe, they will fall off easily into your container.
Autumn Olive Berries Nutrition
These tiny red jewels are a nutritional powerhouses. They are high in vitamins A, C, and E, as well as lesser amounts of minerals such as phosphorous, magnesium, calcium, and potassium. They also contain iron as well as essential fatty acids and bioflavonoids. They are rich in ascorbic acid and have seventeen times the lycopene as ripe tomatoes.
Medicinal Uses for Autumn Olive
The flowers are used as a cardiac tonic for heart health and are astringent and stimulating. The seeds are used as a stimulant in the treatment of coughs. and the oil from the seeds is used to treat afflictions of the lungs. Autumn olive is currently being studied as a food capable of reducing the incidence of several cancers such as prostate, cervix, gastrointestinal tract, and possibly ovarian. This superfood is also being studied as a means of halting or reversing the growth of cancers.
Can You Eat Autumn Olive Berries
The fruit and seeds are edible and can be used in jam, jellies, and preserves as well as eaten raw. The leaves can be used in tea. Once you’ve acquired some autumn berries, they can be eaten fresh, pureed, frozen, made into jam or sauces, fermented into wine … just about any way you can imagine.
The berries can be dried and stored to use in fruity herbal teas or tisanes. The flowers can also be used in herbal teas along with the leaves.
One of my favorite ways to preserve autumn olive berries is to turn them into fruit leather similar to the fruit roll-ups eaten as a child. This is a super simple preservation method and the result is delicious! My family begs me to make this as soon as the fall season rolls around.
Fruit Leather Recipe
For this fruit leather recipe, you want to get at least 8 or so cups of autumn olives (not hard most years). Look for trees that have extra juicy and abundant berries–if you look around, they’re usually easy enough to find. The nice thing about the ingredient list is it only has one—or two ingredients if adding some honey is desired!
8-10 cups of ripe autumn olive berries
4-8 oz water
Sweetener of choice (honey, agave nectar, sugar, stevia, etc.)
- Add berries and water to a large pot on the stove.
- Heat pot over high heat.
- Bring liquid to a simmer, while stirring and mashing the berries.
- Reduce heat low and simmer until most berries have burst, about 10 minutes.
- Remove seeds and stems from liquid by pushing the pulp through a fine mesh sieve or a food mill.
- Add sweetener to taste if desired.
If using dehydrator:
- Lightly coat 2 fruit roll sheets or parchment paper with vegetable oil.
- Thinly spread berry mixture over sheets and place in dehydrator tray.
- Set dehydrator to 135-140 degrees F and dry for 10 hours, or until fruit is no longer sticky.
If using oven:
- Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
- Spread berry mixture over sheets and place in oven.
- Set oven to lowest temperature and dry until fruit is no longer sticky.
To finish Fruit Leather:
- Remove fruit leather and cut into strips with knife or pizza roller.
- Roll up fruit leather and store in an air tight container. Store in freezer if fruit leather is still tacky.
Autumn olive fruit leather is super flavorful and is a faal treat that my whole family looks forward to.
Autumn olive fruit leather stores well, so its the perfect snack to take on the go, whether in the woods foraging, or on the road. I hope you enjoy this recipe–and happy foraging!