A hearty fall fruit worth the wait
by Christine Conley
Unfortunately for Roxanne Kapitan of Real Wild Foods, Inc., it was just a couple of weeks too late to harvest the Autumn Olive. Roxanne, a year-round Vineyard resident, is the President of the U.S. branch of the Canadian company making delicious products from wild, foraged food from the Canadian wilderness. Her aim is to begin making some locally foraged products right here on the Island. So what better place to start than with a fruit in such abundance as the Elaeagnus umbellata, or Autumn Olive?
I’ve heard many people refer to Autumn Olive as Russian Olive. This is a common mistake, though both are edible. Autumn Olive berries are red with silver dots, and Russian Olive are whitish colored. In these parts, Autumn Olive is far more common. The plant itself is a shrub growing to about seven to nine feet with two-inch pointed leaves that are a light green with a silvery underside. Yellow flowers adorn the plant in early summer, giving way to fruit come fall. Autumn Olive is an alien plant introduced from Asia for its ornamental characteristics and ability to draw birds, but as with many introduced species, it has proven hearty enough to out-compete many native plants, and as a result is considered invasive. It frequently overtakes recently disturbed areas and can be easy to identify on roadsides, as a light breeze can flick the leaves revealing the silvery undersides.
Come fall, once many of our wild and cultivated edibles have fruited and the fall harvest is almost over, the Autumn Olive remains one of the few plants that still provides edible fruit beyond the first frost. An excessive producer, each branch of the shrub gives up hundreds of pea-sized berries. All you need to do is place a wide-rimmed basket under the chosen branch and run your hand from the base of the branch to its tip. With one motion, all of the fruit will land safely in your basket.
Many delicious things can be made from the fruit of Autumn Olives. By far the best is a basic fruit leather. Depending on the tartness of the plant harvested (each plant varies slightly), it may or may not be necessary to add a little sugar to the puree. Roxanne has me looking forward to making a syrup, and using the puree as an additive to recipes calling for fruit.
In “Wild Plants I have Known…and Eaten” by naturalist and wild edible expert Russ Cohen of the Essex County Greenbelt Association, the Autumn Olive is described as an excellent source of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant. He refers to a recent study conducted by the Department of Agriculture which cites raw Autumn Olive berries as having lycopene levels 18 times that of tomatoes, which points to the plant’s untapped potential as a powerful anticancer and heart-healthy food.
One point worth noting though, is with all of us making fruit leather from this invasive species, what’s to be done with all of the seeds? Roxanne suggests adding them to your compost pile and making sure that you work them into the center of it. She assured me that in all of her years of harvesting the berries, she has yet to see a seedling sprout from the depths of active compost.