Autumn Olives, What the Heck Are Those? (Hint: They're Invasive—and Delicious)

Pick these sweet-tart autumn olives and you'll be doing the environment a favor.

autumn olives

Autumn Olives are invasive and ripe for the picking (Photo: Emily Dickinson/Creative Commons via Flickr)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Depending on where you live, this time of year can be especially fruitful for foragers. Wild mushrooms are often bountiful, nuts are ready to harvest, fennel seeds can be gathered, and wild grapes may still be ripe for the plucking. But if you live anywhere between Maine and Alabama, or even as far west as Missouri, there’s another wild goodie that you’ve probably passed unnoticed: autumn olive.

The autumn olives are terrific raw. They pair beautifully in salads or as an element on a cheese tray. Use them to infuse vodka, or reduce them into sauce for wild autumn game like roast duck or venison.

Not only are the autumn olives delicious, but by eating them, you’re also doing the environment a favor.

In many places—particularly New England—autumn olive is considered an invasive species. Records of autumn olives (Elaeagnus umbellata) being cultivated stretch back to the 1830s, but it wasn’t until the 1930s and ’40s that the plant took off. Much of it was planted along roads and highways to prevent erosion. Often autumn olives were planted in areas that were polluted or had poor soil. While its bushy branches provide safe habitat for small birds, it’s unfortunately successful at crowding out other nearby native plant species. Oops.

Book a hike with wild foods expert Russ Cohen, and there’s a good chance he’ll break out a container of sticky, sweet fruit leather made from autumn olives for sharing. Not only is the fruit leather tasty (and an easy sell to kids), but the berries are also loaded with healthy lycopene.

Autumn olives are ripe for the picking between the beginning of October and end of November, but that’s where the agreement ends. Some foragers say the best time for harvesting autumn olives are just before the first frost. Others swear it’s immediately afterwards. We say let your taste buds decide and sample as you go. Sweetness varies from bush to bush, even in the same vicinity.  

“A bush [with berries] that is astringent and puckery isn’t going to get better after a frost,” says Cohen.  Instead, he says, make sure the berries are on the plant long enough to fully ripen, and search for those that are plumper, rounder, and deep red in color.

Not a foraging fan? No worries. Plenty of chefs in Boston, Providence, and elsewhere feature autumn olives on menus come fall.

“It’s a treat because you only see them a couple of weeks a year,” says Jason Bond, chef/owner of Bondir in Cambridge, MA. “It’s something you can’t get unless you go yourself and get them. Plus, it breaks up the routine of always cranberries or always blueberries.”

Autumn Olive Fruit Leather

Courtesy of Russ Cohen

In a large pot, cover bottom with enough water to keep the fruit from scorching. This could be 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch, adding more water when necessary. Add fruit and simmer for 20-25 minutes, until fruit softens and begins to separate the pulp from the seed. Pour entire contents through a fruit mill. Crank the mill to separate the seeds and pulp. (If you do not have a food mill, use a fine-mesh sieve, and press pulp through with the back of a spoon.) Pour pulp into liquid containing trays of a dehydrator and run overnight.

Autumn Olive Vodka

Courtesy of Jason Bond, Bondir

After washing autumn olives, fill 1/3 of a glass jar with the ripe berries. Add a couple of strips of Sorrento lemon peel (remove any white pith) and a good dash of sugar. Fill jar to the top with vodka or other neutral spirit. Wrap tightly and store in the refrigerator for several weeks before serving.

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