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Monday, September 24, 2012

Ode to an Autumn Olive

My favorite invasive species
Autumn Olives, nice and ripe
By Will Collette

With the coming of fall, I look forward to harvesting the last edible wild berry of the year, the Autumn Olive

My brother-in-law Mike O’Reilly and I have had a running battle over Autumn Olives for several years. Mike is the environmental officer for the town of Dartmouth, MA, and, as such, he made it plain to me that Autumn Olives are a very bad invasive species.

I never knew the fruit was edible. When we first moved here 10 years ago, I noticed we had several tall bushes that were just loaded with red- with gold-speckled fruit in August. I tasted them and immediately spit them out. Yuck – astringent, sour, nasty. I followed the usual rule of foraging that if it tastes bad, it’s probably not good for you.

But several years ago, a friend stopped by in October, noticed the bushes and started plucking them off and eating them. So did I, and to my surprise, the fruit was delicious with a sweet-and-sour spicy taste.
My friend said they had these plants back in the islands off Portugal where he grew up and, every fall, he and his family would go berry-picking along the highways around southern New England where the bushes grow the biggest. He didn’t know the name of the fruit.

But my brother-in-law Mike did. He said that they’re very popular with Portuguese folks who come to pick them in Dartmouth. But he told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to destroy my Autumn Olives. Presumably after I picked the fruit.

The Autumn Olive, also known as the Japanese silverberry, is a very tough plant. Indeed, for me to follow my brother-in-law’s instructions, I would have to chop down the bushes (they have a very nice hardwood that’s great for a wood stove or fireplace) and pour herbicidal chemicals into holes drilled down into the stump. In other words, I’d have to nuke them and leave the area where they lived chemically dead and barren. 

No way!

In a good year, like this year, they grow in dense
clusters easily reached for easy harvesting
Autumn Olives were originally brought to the United States from east Asia and planted by the US Forest Service to help reclaim strip mines. They are tough bastards and they will grow where nothing else will grow. I have several large bushes because the original owner of our house also owned the adjacent house lot (which we also bought). He sheared off enough of the top of the moraine to clear it for another house, which will never be built so long as we own the property. That barren house lot looked a lot like a strip mine, so it was a natural place for the Autumn Olives to colonize.

In the spring, each Autumn Olive blossoms with thousands of fragrant white flowers. (Their number tells you how much of a berry crop to expect.) The aroma of the flowers reminds me of the barber shop in Pawtucket where I went as a young boy in the 1950s. The spring foliage has an odd but beautiful silver shimmer to it, more pronounced when there’s a breeze.

The fruit begins to set in late summer but isn’t ready to pick until fall. Usually late fall, but this year, they were ready to pick last week, so I have already picked a bunch. There are still lots of them out there so it's not too late to pick yours, if you know where to find them.

The other amazing thing about the Autumn Olive is how easy it is to pick lots and lots of fruit. The bushes get so heavy with berries that they bend down to the ground. Running your hand down one branch gets you a cup of berries in seconds.

Plus, this year, the crop is especially heavy compared to last year when Hurricane Irene knocked off a lot of  the unripe fruit. Also, because of Irene’s toll on other wild food sources, the hungry critters swarmed onto my Autumn Olive bushes and stripped them bare before I could pick a single berry. The birds and other animals were welcome to those berries last year - they needed them a lot more than I did - but there’s plenty for all this year.

This is usually how my "jam" turns out. One of these
years, I'll get it right. Till then, syrup.
Autumn Olive is a “superfood,” chock-full of antioxidants, and high in lycopene, fiber and flavor. They are right up there with blueberries as a great food source. The flesh is pulpy and there is a soft fiber seed in each blueberry sized-fruit. You can use Autumn Olive in the same way that you would use a blueberry, although there is that edible but chewy fibrous seed.

I bought a food mill so I can easily process all the wild berries I find on our land – last month it was wild grapes and four different varieties of blueberries (including some that, contrary to the common wisdom, thrive in the shadows down in the kettle hole behind our house), dewberries and wild blackberries.

The food mill is especially useful for Autumn Olive berries. What I noticed because of my new food mill is that Autumn Olive berries have much more pulp and less juice than wild grapes or blueberries, so pick more of them if you want enough fruit juice to make jam. 

I’ve read the advice of some conservationists that you should pick as much as you can to take the seeds out of circulation and slow the spread of the plants.

I use Autumn Olive berries for preserves in my ongoing, frustrating efforts to learn how to make good jam. The good thing about trying to make wild berry preserves that even when my best efforts produce a runny product, it sure is a tasty syrup.

As a general rule, I think that fighting to keep invasive species out of our environment is a noble battle. But when it comes to the Autumn Olive, I willingly surrender. I am certainly not going to nuke my land trying to kill a plant that provides fragrant flowers, lush and silvery greenery, good firewood, and tasty, high-nutrition fruit. Plus, Autumn Olives only seem to grow where nothing else will. But, hey, I'm not a wildlife biologist or horticulturalist, so what do I know?

If any reader has tips for me on how to get my jam to set better, please post them under the comments or send them along.