Thursday, October 17, 2019

Autumn olives - a mast year

Early last Saturday I finished working (a freelance writing assignment) unexpectedly early, and so the Frenchman and I decided to hop into Ntini and drive to the beach. The weather was beautiful and crisp. He would run on the low tide beach and I would walk and forage in the dunes. I expected to find some fragrant bayberry.

Instead, I found trees groaning with the weight of autumn olives. You may know them as oleaster. Or autumn berry. Or Japanese silverberry. Regardless, as far as I am aware, these autumn olives are Elaeagnus umbellata, a very invasive small tree, with roots in Asia. There are many species of Elaeagnus.

There is a native American species: commutata. Also commonly called autumn olive. Or silverthorn. But its fruits are green and mealy. The perfumed flowers look almost identical, though. Another spring lookalike is Russian olive, Elaeagnus angustifolia, and it also has green fruit.

Like gummi bears on trees.

I had found some early fruit ripe on Staten Island just before I left for South Africa to visit my mom, in late September. I had been happy about those handfuls. So this ridiculously heavy crop in mid October in Brooklyn was a big  and very nice surprise.

I picked and picked and picked. I also ate a lot and got very sticky. The flesh is juicy, slightly tannic, lightly sweet, and little sour. The flavour is almost like red currant meets sweet tomato but not quite. Some pomegranate. I collected a couple of large branches, too - not something I usually do - because I found what looked very much like two different species, and I wanted to compare leaves and fruit closely.

The ones on the left were clustered in tight bunches and tasted as described. The ones on the right were on a larger tree with larger leaves, the fruit more sparse, on longer stalks, individually larger, and very sour, like lemon juice. Possibly a hybrid, or perhaps even the goumi, Elaeagnus multiflora? Or native silver buffaloberry - Shepherdia argentea, in an unusual eastern occurrence? I need to check to see if its leaves are opposite.

In the kitchen, after washing and sorting, the measuring and milling began. When I work with wild ingredients I measure and weigh them because there are close to no resources telling you, for example, how much a cup of autumn olives weighs, or how much juice you can expect to extract from that cup. This is basic information that is required for a recipe to work.

In the jug you can see how autumn olive juice separates after a few minutes. It has very high lycopene content, and working with it is like working with tomatoes, whose lycopene is a little more famous (lycopene is an antioxidant best known for contributing to heart health).

The autumn olive kitchen.

I know. Now what?

Wait and see!



  1. Looks yummy! Don't you also love your Oxo anything? We do.

    Isn't Elaeagnus what cedar waxwings love ... and well, like the over-ripe fruit so much that they can get drunk on it? I think i remember the Va Dept of Highways pulling out many bushes on the Interstate because cars were hitting (and killing) the drunk birds.

    1. Drunk birds, that is funny. Or not. I must look it up!

  2. It's funny, I'm from russia, there were a lot of russian olives in my hometown, but I never knew it's english name. In russian it's лох (lokh). But we, children, called it wild dates :-)

    1. That is very interesting, thank you! And it sounds as though you enjoyed eating them?

    2. Sure! I remember their taste as mouth-puckering, but very sweet.


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