Foraging Wild Fruit: Autumn-olive

Photo of Autumn-olive fruit

Autumn-olive* (Elaeagnus umbellata) and I go way back. When I was growing up, one of my neighbors had a hedgerow of Autumn-olive that formed a natural home-run wall for neighborhood baseball games. But it took until my 20's to learn the name and eat the fruit of this species.

Photo of Autumn-olive leaves

Autumn-olive shrubs often grow and thrive on disturbed sites with sandy soils.  The flowers of Autumn-olive are yellow-white and extremely fragrant. The ripe fruit is red, covered with silver dots, and is about the size of a green pea. The leaves are entire (not toothed) and have silvery under-sides and, often, silver-speckled upper-sides. The branches can have thorns, so foragers should use caution to avoid puncture wounds.

Photo of Autumn-olive thorns

The berries may be small, but shrubs can be densely covered with fruit. Using both hands, I gather berries into a bucket that I tie around my waist.  Fully ripe fruit detaches easily from the stems, so waiting until the fruit is plump and deep red not only cuts down on post-foraging sorting but also results in better tasting fruit.

I enjoy fresh Autumn-olives by the handful. Depending on the bush and the degree of ripeness, the fruit -- each of which contains a single chewable seed -- can be puckery sour or surprisingly sweet. In years that I gather several pounds of fruit, I like to cook some portion in a pot with a touch of water, mash it all up, pass the pulp through a strainer to remove the seeds (or you can leave the seeds in), and pour the resulting pulp onto trays bound for the dehydrator.  The resulting wild fruit leather has a flavor like none other. A web search reveals tons of other culinary creations that utilize this wild fruit.

Photo of Autumn-olive handful

*In his book Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants, Samuel Thayer also refers to this plant as Autumnberry.

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