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Autumn olives a delicious stand-in for cranberries

This week, I am preparing for Thanksgiving dinner. The traditional dish I’m working on is the tart sauce. I’ve never grown cranberries; instead I’m harvesting autumn olives to cook with apples as a substitute for cranberry sauce.

The mix of apple sauce and these small sour berries is delicious. It also brings me satisfaction to pull a jar of red berries from the freezer to cook up, rather than ripping open a plastic bag of store-bought cranberries.

Autumn olives, Elaeagnus umbellata, are a non-native shrub. Native to Asia, this large bush was introduced to the United States in the 1830s.

It was popular for landscaping, to plant for wildlife, and even recently for reclaiming mine land. Before its reputation took a turn for the worse, people liked many things about this plant. Some virtues often cited were its pretty silvery leaves, sweetly fragrant flowers, its ability to grow quickly in poor soils while fixing nitrogen in the soil, and its edible (for humans and wildlife) berries.

Now that the autumn olive has fallen from grace, I’ve read about its negative features: the overpowering scent of its flowers, its ability to grow and thrive thereby easily out-competing natives, its berries inferior to native berries in nutrients. Even its nitrogen fixing abilities have encountered criticism.

The Penn State Extension website complains that the nitrogen autumn olives fix disrupts the local nitrogen cycle and thus negatively impacts native plants.

I find it interesting that traits once admired are now scorned and condemned.

The reason for the autumn olive’s current unpopularity stems from this plant’s ability to thrive almost anywhere that isn’t dense shade or overly wet. As it spreads, it can become a hassle to control.

Its rapid growth and nitrogen fixing (rare in non-leguminous plants) can be put to use. I’ve read some permaculture farmers will plant autumn olives in the same hole with orchard trees, and then cut the autumn olive as it grows.

Thus, the spread is controlled and both nitrogen and mulch provided to the desirable tree. However, there are less invasive shrubs that can serve similar purposes.

In the 1950s, the U.S. Conservation Services promoted planting autumn olives for roadside erosion control. They were also widely planted to quickly “reclaim” mine sites (particularly mountain top removal mines), since they grew on these damaged lands where other plants took much longer to take hold and rebuild soil health.

They germinate easily — although supposedly the berries have to be digested before they will sprout into new plants.

Personally, I’m of both minds about this shrub. It is very pretty, I find its flowering perfume very pleasant and I enjoy the fruit. However, it does grow annoyingly fast. It has taken over open fields in my valley in just a few years.

However, since it is here I figure I may as well harvest the berries. They are red when ripe, with silver or brown speckles. They are small — less than half an inch long and somewhat tedious to harvest.

The berries are most sour at the beginning of the season, and should mellow out as the weather cools. Rich in antioxidants, the seeds contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients. The flavor varies greatly by bush.

Autumn olive berries can be preserved through freezing, making into jam or cooking into other recipes. They can substitute for cherries, currants, or other berries.

While I’ve only ever eaten them raw or cooked into sauce, I would like to try some other recipes I’ve seen such as autumn olive ketchup.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email