Autumn Olive in Spring

Our old house came with a yard full – and I do mean full – of old fashioned plants, things like yews and lilacs and peonies, a big magnolia and a truly hideous orange azalea that has long since gone to its just reward.

Among the plants we class as riches is a tree-sized autumn olive, Elaeagnous umbellata. It may have been planted when they were still on the OK list. Or, in the manner of autumn olives it may have arrived naturally, delivered by a passing bird.

In any event it’s here now, a late spring star whose clouds of starry white flowers perfume the entire lower yard. Beneath it, looking like fallen petals, is a carpet of tender white violets. Pick a bouquet of both and you see the olive blossoms are in fact pale cream.


Both plants are invasive weeds, though only the olive seems to excite strong passions among preservationists. ( Plenty of people hate violets in the lawn. Another whole story.)

Because it is now tree-size, we thought for years it was a Russian olive, E. angustifolia. This made us feel slightly less guilty: the Russian kind seems marginally less inclined to cover the earth.

But only slightly, both olives are on the don’t plant this list and any day now we will cut ours down. Right after we fertilize the poison ivy, an unimpeachably native vine of which we have a great deal more than either Elaeagnous.

In the meantime, we’ll remember that these “olives” feed many wild creatures including but by no means limited to: Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Cedar Waxwing, Northern Mockingbird, Cardinal, Wood Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, assorted sparrows, Black Bear, opossum and skunk).

Of course they also feed fellow-invasives like starlings. And deer are fond of them. These things are never simple.


These are the flowers that convinced me it was E. umbellata, after I read about the difference here.

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  • Don’t tell anyone, but two of the other creatures that eleagnus umbellata feeds are my husband and I. We harvest the berries mid to late October and make the most splendid Autumn Olive Jam; very tangy, fruity and of the most elegant rose color. (I sometimes dress up a pumpkin cheesecake by reheating 1/2 cup of the jam and glazing the cheesecake with it.) When I first encountered this tree I tasted the fruit I was reminded of my aunts’ tree and proclaimed it a chokecherry. A naturopathic doctor friend thought it was Russian Olive and disbelieving me did some research and concluded Autumn Olive. Since the berry didn’t kill me I decided to make jam and for that alone I should win some kind of award as its, honestly, the best tasting jam I’ve ever eaten. I was unaware that other creatures liked it as it seems the trees are always laden with berries and show no sign of browsing. I’ve been told that the winged and furred (bears) creatures wait for the berries to ferment before they indulge (and why not?). We head them off at the pass. We throw a large bedsheet on the ground beneath the branches and then rub like mad to release the berries and then go home and make jam using the proportions/recipe for currant jelly. Sad about the invasiveness. Our local CT watchdogs are on the prowl cutting down our treasured, secret orchards.
    PS. No. No health problems so far.

    • Leslie Said,

      Hi Michelle,
      and thanks so much for your comment; consider yourself the recipient of the resourcefulness award – also perhaps another for eloquent description; the E. umbellata promotion board, if it exists, should certainly hire you! Must say I find it fascinating that your tree keeps its berries long enough for you to harvest them – birds take ours even before they’re ripe.
      As far as I know, no worries about health; alternate fruit types are all the time pointing out that people eat both kinds of “olive” berries in Russia. The jam sounds delicious. And as you point out, the bears may know something. Wonder if any homemade wine folks have ever experimented…
      As for the violets, I don’t know of anything besides the usual edible flowers for salads and throwing a few leaves in with the other wild greens when you’re cooking them. Distantly remember a wine recipe but may be making that up; please let us know if you find one. ( Lilac wine is terrific so maybe violet would be too.)

  • Oh, I forgot to ask…any culinary ideas for the invasive violets?

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