Autumn Olive, Elaeagnus umbellata, is a deciduous shrub that is one of those plants intentionally introduced into North America from Asia for a very practical purpose. It was first brought here in 1830 but was widely planted in the 1960's along highways to revegetate road banks and prevent erosion. For areas where the soil was poor, such as land devastated from mining practices, the Autumn Olive plants improved soil quality due to its nitrogen-fixing root system.
The problem with that, as found out, was that this adversely affects the nitrogen cycle of the native plant communities that depend on infertile soils. It wouldn't be a problem if the shrubs wouldn't propagate so easily and pop up in naturalized areas, meadows and farm fields. The seeds find their way so far and wide from the droppings of birds. This is the catch. We want to provide food for wildlife and that this shrub certainly does since one bush can produce several gallons of berries a season.
Opinions differ on the attitude about the Autumn Olive shrub. Those interested in a permaculture lifestyle love this plant because it is so prolific, inexpensive to purchase or simply find in the wild to propagate. As such, it serves as a valuable food source for both people and wildlife.
Permaculture is the development of agriculture in sync with the ecosystem that is sustainable and self-sufficient. It combines the best of natural landscaping and edible landscaping.
Here is a good video on the benefits of food bearing plants.
Those seeking to create hedgerows have various reasons for doing so. Some want a low maintenance privacy hedge, others want to create a wildlife haven that will provide safety, nesting sites and food for both birds and animals. The Autumn Olive perfectly fits the bill for that purpose. It is drought resistant, winter hardy, can be pruned but doesn't have to be, and quickly fills in with its intertwining branches.
People who plant these shrubs for hedgerow privacy purposes have to be aware of the growing habits of this plant. It needs lots of space to spread out. The branches don't just grow up towards the sun like most shrubs and trees, they grow in any direction and intertwine. So if there is no intention of keeping a shape by pruning, expect them to reach a height of 20 - 30 feet high and depending on if the branches reach sideways at ground level, the shrub could be 15 - 20 feet wide.
These plants are very tough but do have the dying back of branches as the inner parts get shaded out. Working around the shrubs definitely requires thick work gloves. While there aren't actual thorns on the limbs, they are very spiny to handle.
Those who want to eradicate the plant have good reason as well since they do pose a threat to our native plants and are now on the invasive species list. Here is an excellent video all about recognizing the Autumn Olive and how to remove it.
Autumn Olive shrubs are easy to identify once you are familiar with them. The leaves form alternately on the stems and have wavy margins to their oblong shaped leaves. Flip them over and there is the tell-tale silver sheen to the undersides of the leaves. The berries are small and form clusters along the stems.
May is a wonderful time to enjoy the scent of these shrubs. The flowers are not very conspicuous, only about a half inch long, and a pale yellow to white bell shape. But they give off a sweet, exotic fragrance that can be very noticeable, but interesting is that if you just stick your nose into the bush and sniff you may not smell anything. Unless you know the source of the aroma you may not know where it is coming from.
The berries form in early August but are too sour to eat. They sweeten up as the temperatures drop and are best by October when the red berries have a speckled appearance. They can be eaten right off the bush but if you wait too long the birds will get to them first. Some people don't like them because they can be seedy, but as far as eating for nutritional purposes, they are at the top of the list of fruits high in antioxidants.
Here are two previously written blog posts on the Autumn Olive.
To Plant or Not to Plant..Learning about Invasives
The Marvels of May