What is an Autumn Olive?

Friends Drift Inn Farm – Gardening and Foraging

Autumn Olive foraging with Tammy Horn of Coal Country Beeworks

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When Life Gives You Autumn Olives

Foraging Autumn Olives on Reclaimed Mine Sites

“You are never too old to learn” Grandma used to tell me.

I have a confession. I have much more learning to do. How could I have lived in the Kentucky coalfields for 25 years and never heard of Autumn Olives?

Autumn Olives, Elangnus umbrella, grow abundantly and well here in Appalachia. They are not a native; the government suggested planting the trees on reclaimed mine sites to better manage soil erosion. The roots of the Autumn Olive tree act much like a legume, fixing nitrogen in the soil. The down side is the small trees are invasive. Walk along a power line on a reclaimed site, and there is sure to be a row of Autumn Olives growing from seeds deposited by birds.

The Berries

What is an Autumn Olive?

The trees are short; making it easy to pick from the heavily laden branches. Three of us harvested three gallons of berries from two trees in an hour. We could have picked more; but the weather took a nasty turn and we headed off the mountain.

The red berries are amazing to behold; maturing in September here in Zone 6b. I think King Midas deposited little flecks of gold beneath the fruit skin; they shimmer like a metallic finish on a fancy sports car. The berries are small, about the size of a currant or gooseberry. They contain one seed, you could remove, but if I’m eating in the fields I usually don’t.


The Taste

Autumn Olives have a zing. They are tart. In terms of flavor, I think they are similar to cranberries. I have seen some recipes using them in sweets; but my instincts send me to the savory side. I am thinking Autumn Olives would be lovely paired with game meats as a sauce, or perhaps dried and used in bread or stuffing. I also have visions of the berries presented with charcuterie and cheese plates.

You will not find much about Autumn Olives in the woodland guide books. Autumn Olives are not something steeped in Appalachian traditions; they are in fact a native of Asia.

The Benefits

Tammy Horn of Coal Country Beeworks, works with coal operations to help reclaim mine sites with native plants. Autumn Olives are no longer used on reclamation projects due to their invasive nature. However, Horn points out that Autumn Olives are one of the first trees to bloom, usually in March. The flush of yellow waxy blooms provides over wintered bees with much need food; and results in a spring production of Autumn Olive honey.

In addition to aiding bee populations, I explained in the Appalachian News-Express article When life gives you Autumn Olives”

  • Contains 17% more Lycopene than tomatoes; Lycopene is thought to deter cancers.
  • The sheer abundance begs for a marketing gimmick. Would flatlanders pay to pick Autumn Olives on reclaimed mine sites?
  • Could we build a festival around Autumn Olives offering jams,   jellies, wine, mead, fruit leather, syrups, pies and pastries?

Like Pandora’s Box, we cannot call the Autumn Olives back. What we can do is figure out how to make the most of their bountious and tasty crop.

As for me and mine, we shall have Autumn Olive Jelly for Thanksgiving Dinner instead of cranberry. Respect the past, but live in the reality of our present.

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When life give you Autumn Olives by Joyce Pinson

About Joyce Pinson

Joyce Friend Pinson is a regional farm-to-table columnist for the Appalachian-News Express. She is a local television host. Her column show and blog, Friends Drift Inn, explores food, gardening, and real life farm-to-table stories from the perspective of a baby boomer in Appalachia. Joyce has a background in agriculture, media, and small business. Joyce is an heirloom gardening addict and home canner. She has a penchant for big hats, pointy toed shoes, and bourbon. Along with her husband Charlie, Joyce really does live in a barn where they ballroom dance. And laugh. And cook. And giggle.