Autumn olive, or elaegnus, is a delicious and tart berry. What does it taste like, you ask? Some say cherries, some say currants, but I say autumn olive! This is a unique fruit unto itself, with very little counterpart in the cultivated world.
Before the first winter frost the berries are very astringent due to being full of tannic acid, but that’s okay. You can remove tannic acid by using your freezer to mock the frost. (If you let the berries hang around until after the frost, there won’t be many left by the birds.)
This very common plant gets a lot of negative press in the invasive management world. I have heard a story of an invasive plant task force killing the autumn olives, and then the bird people complaining about the diminished bird migration.
How about we realize that the best way of managing invasive plants is to eat them? These plants produce seed through their berries, and a single shrub can yield several gallons. If you eat them, then you will naturally reduce the populations. Perhaps this is part of our place on the earth.
Identifying this wild berry is relatively easy as the bush has only a few lookalikes, such as honeysuckle. You can tell the fruit apart because up close, you’ll notice mottling or speckles, which are not present on similar looking berries, such as false Solomon’s seal. (False Solomon’s seal, additionally, is not a shrub – it’s always important to see a whole plant, and never just focus on a berry.)
Look for these shrubs, or small trees, on the edges of the forest where the meadow begins. They are often crowding roadsides, although I don’t recommend harvesting from these because of runoff and pollutants from tar and car exhaust.
Medicinally, autumn olive is a powerful antioxidant. It contains about 18 times more lycopene than tomatoes. In addition to being a protectant against cancer, lycopene has been clinically shown to be directly linked with prostate health.
Often, foragers eat the berries and spit out the seeds, because they’re very pulpy. However, the seeds are full of omega-3 fatty acid, a rich source of oil or “brain food” that’s hugely helpful in reducing inflammation. Research shows that the proper ratio of omega fatty acids in the body is directly linked to how inflamed we are. Generally, the diseases of our modern world, all our woes ending in “itis,” are inflammatory issues. Omega-3 reduces inflammation, while omega-9 causes inflammation – necessary when there is a sprain or break to help send a pain response, so that we don’t go for a jog with a broken leg.
On our modern diet high in sugar, GMO wheat, and other processed foods, we are all blowing our bodies up from the inside. Our bodies now are said to have about a 20 to 1 ratio of omega-9 to omega-3 fatty acid, making us heavily disposed to have inflammatory diseases.
An easy way to consume the autumn olive with the seeds is to collect them and freeze them. After a few weeks, you can add a few handfuls into a smoothie.