Autumn and Russian Olive
Deciduous shrubs or small trees, autumn olive and Russian olive are in the oleaster family and are very similar. There are several other related species across the country, most of which are not native. Silverberry grows in the western part of the country along the banks of streams or on hillsides. They all share the characteristic of having silvery scales on the underside of the leaves and dots on the fruits.
How can you tell the difference between Russian olive and autumn olive?
Autumn and Russian olive both produce yellow, fragrant flowers in the spring that are small and have four petals. The fruit of autumn olive is red, sweet, and juicy, while the fruits of Russian olive are dry and mealy and may be yellow or silvery.
The area in which you live can help you to determine which species grows there. Russian olive covers much of the central and western part of the United States as well as some areas in the east. It does best in low, moist, sandy areas and can be found along streams and edges of fields. Autumn olive was planted in the eastern and central United States from Maine south to Virginia. It is drought tolerant and has nitrogen-fixing root nodules that enable it to thrive in poor soils including roadsides, pastures, and fields whose soil has been depleted of nutrients from farming. It does not do well in wet or densely forested areas.
Russian olive is native to southern Europe and Asia. It was introduced in the late 1800s as a windbreak and for its ornamental value. Autumn olive was introduced from eastern Asia in 1830, first as an ornamental and then to restore vegetation in disturbed areas. Its ability to fix nitrogen in the soil made it useful to also improve the soil. Forests that had been cleared in national and state forests and along the highway were replanted with autumn olive. Some conservation groups were promoting using it to create a wildlife habitat in backyards, parks, and other natural areas. Birds are attracted to the fruits and disperse the seeds across fields and forests. The plant grows rapidly and in a short time forms a colony.
The fruits of both species, autumn olive and Russian olive, are edible. Autumn olive fruits are sweeter and more desirable than those of the Russian olive. The fruits begin ripening in late summer and continue into November.
Taste can vary from shrub to shrub, so it's a good idea to sample a few before picking, especially if there's more than one tree in the area. Branches are generally loaded with fruits, making it easy to pick a lot of fruits in a short time. Some people believe they become sweeter after a frost. Fruits can be nibbled right off the tree or made into a juice. The fruits are a rich source of lycopene, which is good for the prostate.