Autumn Olive (Autumnberry)

(Elaeagnus umbellata)

Cultivar tested

‘Ruby’

Description and site preference

Type and size – rounded shrub that can grow to 20 feet high and wide if left unmanaged
Hardiness zone – 3-7
Exposure – full sun
Soil – wide range, pH 4.0-8.0
Drainage – moderate to well-drained

Economic factors

Years to harvest – 2-3
Maintenance – low, except for pruning, which could be intensive
Life of planting – 20+ years
Machine harvest potential – high if managed as a hedgerow
Suitable markets –processed

Notable features

Nutritional highlights – rich in lycopene
Adaptability – highly adaptable, but significant winter dieback on cultivar tested
Pest issues – minimal
Invasive potential – high (Autumn Olive is on the federal invasive species list and should not be planted where it is not already established to prevent further spread of this species. It was eliminated from the Carandale test plot.)
Environmental benefits – nitrogen fixing, insectary plant

Integration characteristics

Shared management – high, but intensive pruning required for mechanical harvesting
Shared equipment – high, similar to other bush, shrub and cane fruits
Shared processing – intermediate to high, similar to other small fruit crops
Co-marketing – intermediate to high with other similarly processed fruits

Integration potential – good

Because of its invasiveness, it should not be planted in areas where it is not already established (see Discussion section).

History and background

A close relative of goumi (Elaeagnus umbellata) and Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), autumn olive is a non-native, perennial fruiting, nitrogen fixing plant typical of the Elaeagnus genus. A native of Asia, it was introduced to North America more than 100 years ago to curb soil erosion, a purpose for which it is well-suited because it tolerates and enriches poor soils. Unfortunately, unlike many pioneering plant species, it is persistent, adaptable and readily spread through seed dispersal by wildlife.

In its native range, fruit has long been used for human consumption. It was eaten fresh, processed and dried. Anecdotal evidence of its nutritional value dating back thousands of years was confirmed by the USDA (Fordham et al). Most varieties tested by the USDA were found to have high levels of lycopene, which has powerful antioxidant properties.

Carandale Farm included autumn olive in their trials, netted in controlled conditions, because lycopene is absent or occurs at very low levels in most food sources.

Observations at Carandale Farm

One cultivar was ordered from Northwoods Nursery (see One Green World) in 2003. ‘Ruby’ was said to be “an outstanding variety, prized for its heavy crops of very large and particularly sweet and tasty, bright red berries.”

  • Plants established and grew vigorously the first season in 2003.
  • Plants had significant dieback during the winter of 2003-04, but regrowth was vigorous in 2004.
  • Again in the winter of 2004-05, significant dieback occurred. This was unexpected because it was considered hardy to -30 degrees F, and it was obviously well-established by this time. Goumi, which is considered hardy only to -25 degrees F, overwintered without damage.
  • The undamaged branches flowered in 2005, but there was virtually no fruit set. The root structure was well-established and several feet of new growth occurred during the summer of 2005.
  • There was much less dieback in the winter of 2005-06.
  • Autumn olive showed significant bloom in the spring of 2006, but fruit set was poor.
  • Despite dieback in previous seasons, the plants were at least 6 feet tall and wide by the fall of 2006.
  • A combination of poor performance and the nagging threat of invasiveness did not justify continued observation. Plants were removed in the fall of 2006.

Discussion

Autumn olive is an invasive threat because it is a tough, persistent plant easily spread by birds and other animals that consume the fruit and spread the seeds. The apparent lack of winter hardiness for the cultivar observed in the test plot is somewhat of a mystery, but perhaps a blessing. Even with overwintering setbacks, the persistence and dominance of this plant was obvious.

Autumn olive’s listing on the federal invasive species list should be taken seriously. Do not plant autumn olive for fruit production (or for any other purpose) where is it not already established as a feral plant. Goumi, a close relative of autumn olive, is known to have similar nutraceutical characteristics and is not known to pose an invasive threat. Goumi did not demonstrate aggressive tendencies in the test plot and is known to be more self-fertile.

References

Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, by Lee Reich

Black, Brent and Ingrid Fordham. “Autumn Olive: Weed or New Cash Crop?” New York Berry News, 6 (1).

USDA ARS National Invasive Species Information Center information on Autumn Olive

Fordham, IM, RH Zimmerman, BL Black, BM Clevidence and ER Wiley. “Autumn Olive: A Potential Alternative Crop”. USDA National Agricultural Library.

Comments are closed.