An annual Fall tradition in our community is foraging for Autumn olives. From late September through October, the bushes of Elaeagnus umbellata are loaded with ripe fruits which can be turned into jam, fruit leather, sauce, barbecue sauce, liqueur, pies, and so much more.
What is an Autumn olive?
The Autumn olive is a bit of a misnomer, as Elaeagnus umbellata is not related to the olives that you find in martini glasses. Rather this bush is a member of the Oleaster family and originated in Asia. Brought to the United States for soil improvement (E. umbellata is one of a few non-legumes to fix nitrogen) and erosion control, among other uses, it is now considered an invasive species, and indeed, many Departments of Conservation spend time and energy trying to eradicate the bush.
Here in NE Missouri, you will most often find Autumn olives in pastures, along roadsides, and in other disturbed habitats. In spring, Autumn olive flowers burst into bloom, covering the bushes with thousands of creamy white flowers that have a very distinctive, almost cloyingly sweet and strong fragrance.
The flowers become small (pea-sized) pinkish-reddish berries that have distinctive silvery spots. Inside each of the thousands of fruits is one seed. Because Autumn olive is particularly attractive to birds, you can imagine how this plant has become an invasive species !
Foraging for Autumn Olives
There are so many reasons why Autumn olive is such a forager’s delight, including:
- There are so many fruits per bush that you can quickly harvest gallons of fruit
- Autumn olives are high in lycopene, a carotenoid with many potential health benefits
- The fruit is delicious
- Autumn olives are abundant across much of the United States. Samuel Thayer says that Autumn olives may be the most common edible wild fruit in the eastern United States.
Like persimmons, the important thing to know about Autumn olives is that they are so incredibly astringent when unripe that they will make your mouth pucker!! But when fully ripe, the astringency lessens, the fruity flavor deepens, and you can eat the fruits by the handful.
We like to tie small buckets around our waist, point a branch of Autumn olive into the bucket, and gently tease the branch with our fingers to “strip” the fruits. You may need to pick out a few rogue leaves with this technique, but it is the fastest way to fill your bucket. Last year we were able to pick almost 10 gallons of fruit in less than one hour, with three people picking. This made two year’s worth of jam for two households!
How to Eat Autumn Olives
Autumn olive jam is my favorite recipe, as it mellows out any lingering astringency and tartness and makes a gorgeous bright pink jam. To make the jam, we first pick through the berries to remove any leaves, sticks, or bugs, then heat the berries gently and simmer until soft. You will begin to see the seeds separate from the flesh, which means that they are ready to run through the food mill.
Next, I use a stainless steel food mill with the smallest mesh insert, and run the fruit through a stainless steel food mill to remove all seeds. At this point, you could add sweetener and make Autumn olive sauce (perfect on pancakes!) or spread the puree on lightly oiled trays and dehydrate it into fruit leather.
To make jam, we follow this recipe using Pomona’s Pectin, and process the jam in a water bath for 10 minutes:
Autumn Olive Jam
2 gallons of Autumn olive puree (seeds removed)
3-8 cups sugar (sweeten to your preferred taste)
8 teaspoons Pectin
8 teaspoons Calcium water (from the Pomona’s kit)
Other ways to enjoy Autumn olives
Although you could just eat Autumn olives fresh, or sprinkle them over a salad as you would pomegranates (spit out the seeds as you go!), there are many interesting recipes that make use of the sweet-tart flavor of the Autumn olive.
We currently have a jar of Autumn olives sitting in vodka to make a liqueur (using a similar process to our nocino).
You might also try this Autumn Olive Ketchup recipe from Learning and Yearning.
We made a delicious Autumn Olive Barbecue Sauce by combining our lacto-fermented hot sauce with a bit of tomato paste and some of our Autumn olive jam. It was incredible!
Or you could bake the Autumn olives up into a pie or crumble (I’ve read that you might want to add cornstarch to help thicken the juice), or even juice Autumn olives and drink it by the glass!
Although I have not yet tried it, I bet Autumn olives would make a really interesting fruit shrub.
However you enjoy them, Autumn olives really are free fruit for the taking. If you have access to a few bushes, keep your eye on them, taste them occasionally to make sure they are really ripe, and then hurry up and harvest some before the birds beat you to it. I hope you enjoy foraging for Autumn olives!
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