Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), also known as Japanese silverberry, is a nitrogen fixing shrub or small tree that carries a great abundance of juicy small fruits, and grows up to 4.5 m (14ft) by 4 m (13ft).
First introduced into North America in the 1830s, it was originally used for strip mine reclamation and to provide food and cover for wildlife. Today it’s seen by many as an invasive species, while others see it as a potential commercial cash crop.
You’ll readily recognize the plant by the distinct silvery color of the leaves, particularly on the underside, the small pale-yellow fragrant flowers that emerge in April, and the red berries that ripen in autumn.
Where It Grows
The species is indigenous to eastern Asia and ranges from the Himalayas eastwards to Japan. It’s hardy to zone 3 in the UK and USDA hardiness zones 3-7. The plants are tolerant of drought and frosts, saline soils, and of soil pH ranging from alkaline to acid.
Birds are attracted by the ripe fruit and subsequently scatter the seeds. As a result,
wild plants are found growing throughout the Eastern U.S. In the mid-Atlantic region the shrubs are commonly found along roadsides and fencerows.
Why We Like It
- Mature shrubs can produce large numbers of small (0.3 inch diameter) edible red fruits that ripen in September and October.
- When ripe, the fruit is juicy and edible and can be made into jams, preserves, etc. It also makes a good dried fruit.
- The plant makes a good edible windbreak that’s about as wide as it’s tall, and is very tolerant of maritime exposure.
- The roots fixes nitrogen in the soil through a symbiotic relationship with Frankia bacteria, thus benefiting other nearby plants. This nitrogen-fixing ability makes autumn olive particularly adapted to low-fertility loamy and sandy soils. and it was for this reason that the U.S. Soil Conservation Service planted autumn olive widely for windbreaks.
- The fruit of many members of this genus is a very rich source of vitamins and minerals, especially in vitamins A, C and E, flavanoids and other bio-active compounds.
- The fruits contain an amount of lycopene some seven to seventeen times higher than that of tomatoes. Lycopene is considered an important phytonutrient, and is thought to prevent or fight cancer of the prostate, mouth, throat and skin, and to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- The plant also has other medicinal properties. For example, the seeds are known to be used as a stimulant in the treatment of coughs
Caution: Note on Invasiveness
Before you decide to plant autumn olive on your land, know that in some parts of North America where it has become naturalized, Elaeagnus umbellata is considered an invasive species.
Plants do not spread by root suckering, but can be quite persistent once established, growing back from the roots when cut down or mowed off. This, combined with seed dispersal by wildlife, and the ability to thrive in poor soils, can lead to unexpected and unwanted spread of the plant into grasslands, pastures and open woodland where it easily outcompetes native plants.
As Plants for a Future cautions:
“E. umbellata has the potential of becoming one of the most troublesome adventive [non-native] shrubs in the central and eastern United States.”
Native Alternatives for North America
As possible replacements for autumn olive in North America, you can plant these non-invasive native species: hawthorns, plums, ninebark, hazelnut, serviceberry and dogwoods.
Where To Get It
Note: Because of it’s ability to spread and outcompete native plants, check your local state recommendations before planting autumn olive.
Burnt Ridge Nursery in Oregon
Harvest Nursery in Oregon
Rolling River Nursery in California
Agroforestry Research Trust (seeds / list of plant varieties)
Plants for a Future
The Nature Conservancy
Black B, Fordham I (2007). “Autumn olive: weed or new cash crop?” (PDF). New York Berry News. Retrieved July 29, 2015.