A layer of autumn olive sauce is slowly baking in the oven. I'm making fruit leather because tomorrow is the foraging club cookout and I want to bring something that can make everybody as excited about autumn olives as I am.
For myself, I usually just make autumn olive sauce and eat it straight from the jar but, for this event, I will bring both the sauce and fruit leather to impress my "posse," as I secretly like to call the group.
Native to Japan, China and Korea, autumn olives were introduced here in 1830 for erosion control, to function as windbreakers and ornamentals and to reclaim and stabilize mine spoils, and they proved useful as a food and shelter for wildlife.
The state Game Commission planted quite a few of these shrubs for this purpose and so did the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources until a few years ago. Autumn olives, believe it or not, have long been labeled as "rarely escaping."
But nowadays, they're on the invasive species list and disliked by many, which is unfortunate because the autumn olive still has all those great qualities and more.
Recently there has been more interest in growing this shrub commercially because the berries contain high levels of lycopene, a cancer-fighting antioxidant. On top of everything, the berries are deliciously sweet and tart.
The autumn olive's scientific name is Elaeagnus umbellata and it's a member of the Oleaster family. Oleaster comes from the Latin word "olea," which means "olive," due to the olive-like appearance of the berries. They ripen in fall, which explains the name "autumn olive."
The autumn olive shrub can grow up to 20 feet tall and has alternate smooth dark green leaves with a light green underside covered with tiny grey scales. The leaves have wavy margins and can grow up to 3 inches long. Occasionally, a branch will have a long thorn, though it's not very common.
Autumn olive grows dainty creamy yellow funnel-shaped flowers in spring and, by fall, it carries countless beautiful little red berries covered with silver speckles.
In general, the berries are ripe when red, but some shrubs may take a little longer for the berries to become really sweet even when red.
Therefore, tasting regularly is recommended.
Ripening time and flavor also can differ per shrub. For instance, the berries on the shrubs on my property never get as sweet as my neighbor's and theirs ripen a couple weeks sooner than mine.
So if my berries are turning orange I know I better rush over to my neighbor's property with my bins and bags.
Don't worry about overharvesting because each shrub can produce up to 35 pounds of berries.
Be aware that to the untrained eye, autumn olives might resemble the toxic Tartarian honeysuckle.
Autumn olives can be found in fields, near road sides and in disturbed soil and nitrogen-poor soil.
Each berry has one big fibrous seed, which makes eating them raw less pleasant, but they are very enjoyable as a sauce. It can be stirred into yogurt, used like applesauce and used for making jam and fruit leather.
The berries freeze well so you can enjoy them throughout the year.
Coming in October: Groundnuts, a potato-like legume.