Wilder Side of Oakland County
Autumn olive, Elaeagnus umbellata, is a story of good intentions gone bad. This fast growing native shrub of Asia was first introduced to the United States in the 1830’s for erosion control, wind breaks, and as a food source for wildlife. It now covers large swaths of the American countryside and is one of the most prolific and rapidly spreading invasive species found in Oakland County. In some sections of our county, and along the shoulders of I-75, it creates nearly impenetrable thickets.
As August fades, the tart red berries with tiny silvery speckles ripen and attract dozens of species of wildlife. Local connoisseurs of the abundant branch-bending fruit include wild turkeys, raccoons, white-footed mice, opossums, cedar waxwings, cardinals, sparrows, goldfinch, mallard ducks and humans, me included. The berries are refreshingly delicious and good for you. And yet, they seem to remain one of the biggest wild food secrets of North America. Perhaps it is time to love this plant by eating its fantastic fruit!
As with any foraged food, be certain of identification before consuming. An Internet post does not make for positive identification, but with a bit of observation and a helping hand from someone who knows, autumn olive is easy to find. Although it usually grows in fields with full sun, it may also be found in woodlands with partial sun and can be 15 or 20 feet high. They have dense branches and gnarly spreading trunks, and some of the younger plants are armed with thorns. The underside of the narrow leaves appear silvery and the berries are red with silver specks. By early September some branches on the wilder side of Oakland County will droop low under the weight of the berries.
Many foragers and hikers just pull a handful of berries off the branch and eat them raw on the run (my favorite way). Sometimes a single shrub will have a gallon’s worth of fruit! If the berries are ripe, and come off easily, harvesting can be accelerated by putting a sheet under the branch, shaking hard or brushing at the berries. What does one do with a gallon of a tasty invasive species? The Internet reveals a wealth of recipes for jams, jellies and fruit leather, or you can make your own concoction! Autumn olive pie? How about chili with autumn olive? There are no rules so experiment away!
Autumn olive berries are rich in lycopene, and research shows that a typical berry is up to 17 times higher in lycopene that a typical raw tomato. The United States Department of Agriculture has taken interest in the plant for its possible food crop and medical values. The berry is now often referred to with the more attractive name, Autumnberry. The online medical information site, WebMD, says this about benefits of lycopene,
“Lycopene is a naturally occurring chemical that gives fruits and vegetables a red color. It is one of a number of pigments called carotenoids. Lycopene is found in watermelons, pink grapefruits, apricots and pink guavas. It is found in particularly high amounts in tomatoes and tomato products. In North America, 85% of dietary lycopene comes from tomato products such as tomato juice or paste. One cup (240 mL) of tomato juice provides about 23 mg of lycopene. Processing raw tomatoes using heat (in the making of tomato juice, tomato paste or ketchup, for example) actually changes the lycopene raw product into a form that is easier for the body to use. The lycopene in supplements is about as easy for the body to use as lycopene found in food. People take lycopene for preventing heart disease, “hardening of the arteries” (atherosclerosis) and cancer of the prostate, breast, lung, bladder, ovaries, colon and pancreas. Lycopene is also used for treating human papilloma virus (HPV) infection, which is a major cause of uterine cancer. Some people also use lycopene for cataracts and asthma. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant that may help protect cells from damage.”
Find your Autumn berries and feast!
Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks & Recreation.
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