Autumn Olives, aka Autumn Berries, are a small sweet tart round red berry that grows on deciduous trees. One of the first trees to bloom in spring, the blossoms help feed winter-starved bees and pollinators. Maturing in September or October, Autumn Berries are a significant source of lycopene. We love them in jams and jellies, especially as an accompaniment to charcuterie.
I have a confession. I have much more learning to do. How could I have lived in the Kentucky Coalfields for 25 years before I heard about Autumn Berries? Joyce Pinson, Friends Drift
Originally published Sept. 20, 2012 Revised 2019
What Do Autumn Olives (Autumn Berries) Taste Like?
Autumn Olives have a zing. They are tart. If you eat them before they ripen, they are sour with tannins. But when they ripen – OH MY!
In the cooling air the fruit remains plump while chemistry is at work beneath its thin skin. The tannin recedes, the berry becomes softer and a sweet edge smooths the sour. They are ripe for picking. Now they burst with a rounded tartness irresistible to any palate drawn to red currants or pie cherries.
Friends Drift Inn has been “projecting” with Autumn Berries for several years. They are lovely paired with game meats, especially quail, pheasant or turkey. They are good with chicken too!
Made into jam or sometimes pickling the whole berry, we love these red jewels on charcuterie and cheese plates.
What is the Nutritional Value of Autumn Olives?
High lycopene levels are what makes Autumn Berries attractive to the food industry.
This fruit produces unusually high concentrations of lycopene, a carotenoid with potential for protection against chronic diseases.
Most medical reports, including WebMD are cautiously optimistic about the benefits of lycopene. We make no claims to the health benefits of our LINK Coming Soon Autumn Berry Jam LINK, but we can tell you it does taste good!
What is All the Fuss About Autumn Olives?
Love them or hate them, Autumn Berries are here to stay.
The actual berry is small, about the size of a gooseberry. The flesh is pulpy, with a large seed in the center. With a slight tang, the berries are edible. Food entrepreneurs are exploring many ways to use the berries commercially including pre-mixed smoothies, jams and jellies.
You will not find much about Autumn Berries in the woodland guidebooks. Autumn Olives are not something steeped in Appalachian traditions; they are in fact a native of Asia.
Autumn Olives, marketed as Autumn Berries or Japanese Silverberries, are from the Elangus umberella family. The small tree grows spectacularly well here in Appalachia. They are considered a noxious invasive.
Ask anyone working in the forestry departments or fish and wildlife, and they will go on a tirade about these invasive berry trees. You just cannot get rid of them.
Cut them down, and it seems three more appear in its place.
Deer, something that is an increasing threat to cultivated crops in our area, have little to no interest in “browsing” or eating the tree foliage. They would rather chow down on heirloom apple trees or decimate our pepper and vine crops. UH!
Autumn Berry trees grow especially thickly along power lines, where the seeds are deposited by birds and quickly take root.
With their abundance, harvesting Autumn Berries may positively impact undesirable spread of the species.
If Autumn Berries Are Not Native, How Did They Get Here?
They were deliberately planted of mine reclamation sites, with the government’s approval, to increase soil fertility.
The thought process was, Autumn Berry trees have roots that act much like a legume. They fix nitrogen in the soil; which is a good thing.
According to the University of Wisconsin article on Autumn Olives – Autumn Berries :
Autumn Olive’s listing on the federal invasive species list should be taken seriously. Do not plant autumn olive for fruit production (or for any other purpose) where is it not already established as a feral plant.
Harvesting Autumn Berries
The trees are short; making it easy to pick from the heavily laden branches. Three of us hand 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 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.
Autumn Berries – A Boon For Honeybees
Autumn Berries – Autumn Olives bloom early in the spring when there is not much nectar for bees to forage. Because of this, beekeepers rejoice.
As bees collect Autumn Berry pollen and nectar, they begin producing a unique flavor of honey.
Tammy Horn, Kentucky State Apiarist, 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 needed food; and results in a spring production of Autumn Olive honey.
In her latest book Flower Power: Establishing Pollinator Habitat, Wicwas Press, 2019 she writes:
The honeybees can build up on the pollen, and by the time other species such as black locust tulip poplar bloom, the hives are at the population needed to take advantage of those nectar flows (40,000 honeybees in one colony is ideal for honey production).
In the fall, birds appreciate its red berries and scatter seeds across the disturbed mine site areas via defecation.
The complexities of Autumn olive forces me to acknowledge that reclamation is not linear. With every adjustment made to an approved plant list, there are winners and losers.
The Life Gives You Lemons Factor
We get it. Autumn Berries (Autumn Olives) are not native and threaten to change to populations of our woodlands. They are invasive and hard to get rid of.
But here in Appalachia, the trees are abundant. By utilizing commercial sources to harvest Autumn Berries, we are diminishing the supply of seeds that can be distributed by wildlife. It may not stop this invasive, but maybe just maybe it will slow them down restoring some balance to our environment.
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 bounteous and tasty crop.
In the meantime, watch for our announcement when Friends Drift Inn Autumn Berry products will be coming available. To be “Inn-The-Know” subscribe to our newsletter.