When you get lemons, make lemonade, says the old adage.
In the case of autumn olive, an invasive plant, there just might be a sliver of a silver lining to its existence on the Vineyard. The silver lining can even be seen on its leaves and its berries, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Introduced to the U.S. from Asia in 1830, autumn olive was thought to be a panacea for erosion control, and so was planted throughout Massachusetts and other states. It can thrive in our poor Island soils and is noted for providing food and cover for wildlife. But birds spread the seeds and this plant has proliferated, overrunning native vegetation. Its sale was even banned in Massachusetts in 2006. So I was unconvinced that it had any benefits, until recently.
While it is rare that I have positive things to say about an invasive plant, autumn olive actually does have at least one redeeming feature. Autumn olive won’t make lemonade, and it’s not the kind of olive you’d find in martinis, but it will make your spirits soar.
Its seeds are edible and that fact delights me. Autumn olive is currently producing a bumper crop of berries that can be made into wine or eaten in a few other forms, such as jam and even fruit leather. The first step on the culinary road is, of course, to be able to positively identify this plant. Since there are other berries that can make one sick, always be sure on the identification of a plant before eating it.
In the case of autumn olive, look for a large shrub, up to 20 feet high, with alternate oblong leaves (not toothed). These leaves have silver undersides. Their dark red fruit cannot be mistaken. These pea-sized fruit have white or silver dots on them. A close relative of autumn olive, Russian olive, differs significantly in that it has yellow or brown fruits and the stem sometimes has thorns.
Fruit is found in copious amounts on autumn olive plants: one bush can produce up to eight pounds of berries. Be sure to taste the fruit before you harvest, because the taste of each shrub’s fruit can be somewhat variable. Fruit from some plants can be too astringent, so you might want to move on to another bush to find the most fabulous fruits. The fruit will be ripe through October and into November, so you may have more berries than you can bear.
Jam is an option for all of that fruit, but another recipe has intrigued me even more. In the book, Wild Plants I Have Known . . . And Eaten, Russ Cohen, a Massachusetts-based wild foods aficionado, details a fun way to eat these non-native fruit. He creates fruit leather, which isn’t as tough as its name might imply: it is made simply by cooking the fruit, straining out the seeds and drying the resulting puree.
The best part about this treat is that it has no added sugar! Even better is that you are taking the seeds out of circulation (as long as you don’t put them in your compost pile), so there’s less invasive progeny to overrun the landscape. Snacks and invasive species removal all in one tasty bite — a side dish with a side benefit.
Eating the fruit of the autumn olive, also called oleaster, can be a boon to your health too. The berries contain lycopene, the beneficial antioxidant also found in tomatoes. Autumn olive beats the tomatoes to the punch, having more than 15 per cent higher concentration of lycopene than the tomato.
Goodness comes sometimes from unexpected places, even from uninvited guests. When it comes to autumn olive, if you can’t beat it, eat it!
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.