By Emily Lilla & Joseph Mooney
This week autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) returns, an old favorite in our series on invasive plants. Emily Lilla, a former intern and natural areas stewardship technician at Matthaei-Nichols, created the series in 2019.
You’re likely to see a lot of autumn olive this time of year, laden with numerous speckled red berries. This invasive shrub came to the US from Asia around the 1830s as an ornamental tree. While not found in Michigan until 1939, today it can be seen in forests, fields, roadsides, gravel pits—pretty much anywhere. Autumn olive was also planted as wildlife food and habitat historically until it was found to be incredibly aggressive thanks to its seeds spread widely by birds and mammals.
E. umbellata is best identified by leaves that are bright green on top and silver below. This shrub can grow up to 20 feet tall and is called “autumn olive” because the plant resembles the Mediterranean olive tree and has a drupe as the fruit.
Autumn olive has bright speckled red berries in the fall. It is not to be mistaken for other red berries, such as bush honeysuckle. A bit of good news for an otherwise seriously invasive plant: autumn olive berries are packed with nutrients such as vitamins A, C, and E, along with flavonoids and essential fatty acids. They are also known to have the antioxidant lycopene—17 times the amount than in an equal serving of tomatoes. They can be eaten fresh, frozen, pureed, or turned into jam or wine. Take care if transporting autumn olive berries as you don’t want to increase the spread of this invasive species.
For the management of autumn olive, freshly sawed stumps can be treated with a targeted application of herbicide to the cut surface (autumn olive resprouts easily from stumps and roots). For younger plants, cut, recut, repeat—and don’t forget to hand pull the seedlings. Fun fact: goats and sheep graze on autumn olive and can be used to manage it while also preventing overgrazing of other native plants.