Interloper, Not Welcome by Everyone

As I was coming down a hill on a recent hike in the woods, I came upon an open area where the path was lined with clumps of shrubs whose leaves shimmered in the early fall sunshine. The leaves — green on their topsides and hoary underneath — were coming alive as breezes made them first show one side, then the other.
Autumn olive along trail
The plants’ beauty was further highlighted by the abundant clusters of pea-size, silver flecked red (rarely, yellow) berries lined up along the stems. I know this plant and, as I always do this time of year, popped some of the berries into my mouth. The timing was right; they were delicious.

Many people hate this plant, which I’m sure a lot of readers recognized from my description as autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). What’s to hate? The plant is considered invasive (and banned) in many states in northeast and midwest U.S. “It threatens native ecosystems by out-competing and displacing native plant species, creating dense shade and interfering with natural plant succession and nutrient cycling.”
Flowers of autumn olive
But there is a lot to love about this plant, in addition to its beauty. In spring, about the middle of May around here, the plant perfumes the air with a deliciously sweet fragrance. And poor soil is no problem. An actinobacteria (Frankia) at its roots takes nitrogen from the air and converts it into a form that plants can use.

That ability to make its own fertilizer is just one reason this plant was loved before it was hated. Native to Asia (where the plant is not considered invasive), autumn olive was introduced into the U.S. and the U.K. about 200 years

Autumn olive fruit

 ago for their beauty and to provide shelter and food for birds, deer, bees, racoons, and other wildlife. The plant isn’t stingy with its garnered fertility. The soil near plants becomes richer, all to the benefit of nearby other plant species. As such, autumn olive has been planted to, for instance, reclaim soils of mine tailings, and, as interplants, to spur growth of black walnut plantations (by over 100 percent).


But let’s get back to me — and you — eating the berries. The berries are high in lycopene and other goodies so most sources tout the health and healing benefits, after admitting that the berries are astringent and tart.
Yellow and red autumn olive fruits

But, for most autumn olive plants, that’s only if they’re eaten underripe. Right now around here, some plants are offering their dead ripe berries that are neither tart nor astringent, but sweet. Don’t mind the single seed inside each berry. Just eat them also; they’re soft. That window of good flavor is fleeting, lasting only a couple of weeks.

And eating the berries, seed and all, will slow the plants’ spread, pleasing invasive plant people.

So Bad(?) Yet So Good

Are invasive plants really bad? Or just bad for us? Planet Earth likes plant growth. Plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, sequestering carbon, blanket the ground to limit soil and water erosion, and help support micro and macro communities of organisms.

Natural landscapes and their associated natural communities aren’t static. They change as they evolve. No doubt, humans have altered many natural successions. That might spell disaster for our aesthetic or economic sensibilities, but is not “better” or “worse” for our planet.

Scandinavian Dreams

Noncontroversial is another red berry that I am now picking and enjoying. That’s lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea). If you are Scandinavian, you probably just smiled and a dreamy look came into your eyes.Each year, thousands and thousands of tons of lingonberries are harvested from the wild throughLingonberry fruitsout Scandinavia, destined for sauce, juice, jam, wine, and baked goods. A fair number of these berries are, of course, just popped into appreciative mouths. Most everyone else only knows this fruit as a jam sold by Ikea.

I grow this fruit and am now enjoying the fruits of my labors. I planted it both for its good looks and its good flavor, which got it a chapter in my book Landscaping with Fruit. (Autumn olive also made it in.) Let’s start in spring, when cute, little urn-shaped blossoms dangle singly or in clusters near the ends of the thin, semi-woody stems rising less than a foot high. These urns hang upside down (upside down for an urn, that is) and are white, blushed with pink. They’re not going to stop traffic from the street, but are best appreciated when plants are grown where they can be looked at frequently and up close—such as in the bed at the front of my house.

Lingonberry flowers


If you miss the spring floral show, you get another chance because lingonberries blossom twice each season. This second show, appearing in mid- to late summer on young stems, bore the fruits I am now enjoying.

Lingonberry sports evergreen leaves, the size of mouse ears and having the same green gloss as those of holly. Like holly, they retain their lush, green color right through winter. New shoots sprout above the spreading roots and stolons to so plants eventually make an attractive and edible groundcover. 

The fruits that follow the flower shows couple just enough sweetness with a rich, unique aroma so they are, if picked dead ripe, delicious plucked right off the plants into your mouth or mixed with, say, your morning cereal. They are pea-sized and somewhat of a show in themselves. The bright red berries hang on the plants for a long time, well into winter, making a perfect Christmas decoration in situ.
Lingonberry fruit on plant
Lingonberry is native to colder regions throughout the northern hemisphere. This fruit is the Preiselbeere of the Germans, the kokemomo of the Japanese, the puolukka of the Finns, the wisakimin of the Cree, the airelle rouge of the French, the keepmingyuk of the Inuit—and the lingon of the Swedes. In English, the plant parades under a number of monikers, including partridgeberry (Newfoundland), cowberry (Britain), foxberry (Nova Scotia), mountain cranberry, and rock cranberry.

If you grow lingonberry, give it the same soil conditions as its relatives, blueberries, mountain laurels, and rhododendrons. To whit: Well-drained soil that is high in organic matter, very acidic, and not too fertile.


Dare I Speak the Name?

As I was bicycling down the rail trail that runs past my back yard, I was almost bowled over by a most delectable aroma wafting from a most despised plants. Autumn olive blossomsThe plants were autumn olives (Elaeagnus umbellata), shrubs whose fine qualities I’m reluctant to mention for fear of eliciting scorn from you knowledgable readers.

Yet, you’ve got to admit that the plant does have its assets, in addition to the sweet perfume of its flowers. Okay, here goes: The plant is decorative, with silvery leaves that are almost white on their undersides. And the masses of small fruits dress up the stems as they turn silver-flecked red (yellow, in some varieties) in late summer. Autumn olive fruitThose fruits are very puckery until a little after they turn red, but then become quite delicious, and healthful.

(I included autumn olive in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, and also planted them — but that was before the plant became illegal here.)

Another asset of autumn olive is that it actually improves the soil, converting air-borne nitrogen, which plants can’t use, into soil-borne nitrogen for use by autumn olives and nearby plants.

This native of Asia, introduced into the U.S. almost 200 years ago, was promoted in the last century as a plant for wildlife and soil improvement. Decades ago I worked for the USDA in what was then known as the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resource Conservation Service), an agency that not only promoted the plant but also developed varieties for extensive planting.autumn olive fruits in bowl

Autumn olive likes it here and has invaded fields throughout the northeast, the Pacific northwest, and even Hawaii. It’s an invasive plant. Don’t grow it! (But feel free to enjoy its aroma, its beauty, and its fruits.)

One of My Favorite “Invasives”

As autumn olive blossoms fade, the temporary vacuum in sweet-perfumed air will be filled by another plant, black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). That aroma comes from the white blossoms that dangle in chains like wisteria blooms from this tree’s branches.Black locust flowers

Like autumn olive, black locust has other assets in addition to those offered by its blossoms. It’s a leguminous plant, like peas and beans, so, with the help of bacteria residing in its roots, also puts air-borne nitrogen into a form utilizable by plants. 

Black locust’s other assets refer to it when dead: The dense wood is very resistant to rot — much, much more so than cedar — and is very high in BTUs for burning. I converted all my garden’s fenceposts and arbors, which I had previously made from cedar and lasted only about 10 years, to locust.

I’m lucky enough to have a mini-forest of them growing along one edge of my property. I cut them when they are five or six inches in diameter, and in 10 or so years I have a new one to replace the cut one. It adds up.

Quick growth and the ability to resprout from stumps and grow in poor soil by “making” its own nitrogen makes black locust, like autumn olive, a plant not loved by everyone. Despite being native here in the U.S., black locust has been classified as a “native invasive.” The reason is that it was originally native to only two regions in the U.S., from which it has now spread far and wide.

Change Will Come

The classification of “native invasive” highlights the capricious legality and classification of invasive plants. Where is the boundary within which a plant becomes an accepted native? In the mountain that rises up just behind my valley setting, lowbush and highbush blueberry are thriving natives. But these plants would never turn up here on my land, except that I planted them. (And both thrive.)

Clove currant is another plant I grow, one that, in addition to bearing spicy fruits, is resistant to just about every threat Nature could throw at it: deer, insects diseases, cold, drought. And it’s a native plant, but native throughout the midwest, not here. Should I call it a “native?”

Black locust is such a useful tree that its spread was aided and abetted by humans. But it also would have spread, albeit more slowly, without our intervention. Even autumn olive, given enough time, might have hitch-hiked here in some way from Asia.

The Earth’s landscape is not static. Changes represent interactions of climate, vectors, chance, and time. Nostalgia may have us wishing for the view out the window to remain the same as it was when we were children, but that’s not Mother Nature’s way.


Reader Alert: Invasive Plant

    The sweet scent practically bowled me over. My friend, walking with me along the nearby rail trail, characterized the aroma as citrus-y rather than sweet. Either way, the aroma was delicious and welcome. Too bad the source of the scent, autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), is a plant so reviled.Autumn olive blossoms
    “Too bad” because the plant also has other qualities. The olive-green leaves lend a Mediterranean feel to any setting. Microorganisms associated with the shrub’s roots garner nitrogen from the air to enrich the soil. And come early fall, the plants are loaded with delicious and nutritious, small, red (sometimes yellow) berries.
    Alas, this non-native plant grows too easily, frequenting fields and waysides. It’s deemed invasive, which it is . . .  but?
  Autumn olive fruit  (Autumn olive is often confused with Russian olive, E. angustifolium, a close relative that is more tree-like, less invasive, and with sweet, olive-green fruits. Another equally attractive, fragrant, tasty, and soil-building plant is gumi, E. multiflora, not well known but closely related to the other “olives.”)

And Yet Another Invasive

    Soon, by the time you read this, the rail trail and elsewhere will be suffused by another pleasant aroma, that of honeysuckle. These flowers are also followed by red berries, but they’re not edible. (Other honeysuckle species do yield edible berries, an up and coming fruit called haskaps.)Honeysuckle flower
    How could anyone not like a plant with a name like “honeysuckle?” A lot of people don’t like honeysuckle because it too, despite its qualities, is invasive.

You Call This Renovation

    Before anyone attacks me for heaping praise on invasive plants, let’s sidle off the rail trail and back to the home front, where yet another delicious scent fills the air. This one wafts from a plant that, unlike autumn olive, Russian olive, and gumi, is not invasive and is truly in the olive family: lilac (Syringa vulgaris).
    Actually, for years now, my lilac bush has not been perfuming the air as much as it should. The plant is old, my guess is over 50 years old. Not that age alone is responsible for its poor showing. Lilac, like other shrubs, have long-lived root systems. No stem ever develops into a permanent, long-lived trunk and — important for all flowering and fruiting shrubs — after a certain age stems can’t keep up the flower production of its youth.
    The way to prune any flowering or fruiting shrub is by a renewal method. You cut down some of the oldest stems that are no longer performing well. And then you thin out — that is, reduce the number of — some of the youngest stems so that each can develop to its fullest potential without being crowded.
    How long an old stem is worth keeping and how many new stems spring up each year from ground level depends on the kind of shrub and the growing conditions. A highbush blueberry stem, for example, retains its youthful fecundity for about 6 years; a raspberry, for two years.

Young lilac, old lilac, renovated lilac

Young lilac, old lilac, renovated lilac

    I’ve pruned my lilac over the years, but — I have to admit — never cut the old stems close enough to the ground nor thinned out the many young stems sufficiently. (My excuse is that the dense crowding of 5-inch-diameter stems made cutting difficult, the difficulty made more so by the haven they provided for poison ivy vines.)
    A non-blooming lilac shrub isn’t worth keeping, so drastic renovation was in order. This treatment can be applied to any old, decrepit shrub. It’s easy. All that’s needed is to cut everything to the ground. Which I did.
    My lilac’s stumps gave evidence to the shrub’s poor showings over the years with their many thick yet half-rotten, old stubs. Shrubby stems, as I wrote, just aren’t meant to live that long, and over time can’t support good flowering.
    If all goes well, new sprouts should soon poke up from ground level, vigorous new sprouts because they’ll be fueled by a large, old root system. It’ll be a few years before any of those sprouts get old enough to start flowering. But I’ll make sure to thin them out so each has room to develop. I promise.

Win a Copy of My Book

A few weeks ago my plum tree was in full bloom, actually only part of it was in full bloom. Winter’s wacky weather? Spring’s wacky weather? Plum, blossoming branchOffer an explanation and, if correct, you’ll be in the pool of readers, one of whom, randomly selected, gets sent a free copy of my book Grow Fruit Naturally. Respond by midnight, May 31st.
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