About the Autumn Olive
Autumn Olive (also called Autumn Berry, Japanese Silverberry, or Spreading Oleaster) is a bush that is native to China and is considered an “invasive” in the USA. In a good part part of the 20th century, it was used extensively by the US Army Corp of Engineers to hold hillsides in place from the growing highway system spanning the US and to fix nitrogen. The Autumn Olive grows exceedingly quickly; it can rise up several feet in a few months and bush out. It also spreads rapidly due to its berries being a favorite of birds. It is a nitrogen fixer, so it is often found in abused land areas or landscape areas that are regenerating (like old farmer’s fields or industrial sites); I should add that its one of the few non-legume nitrogen fixers we have and it does fill an important role in the ecosystem. It is extremely prevalent here in Michigan; I’ve also seen it in Indiana and Ohio and in the warmer parts of PA (like Bedford county). If you search invasive plant sites or talk to people, they will often call this plant a menace plant. And while this bush does spread quickly, it does have its benefits, especially in the form of beautiful, tasty, autumn olive berries with their incredible cranberry-like tart and sweet flavors.
The fruit is extremely high in lycopene (up to 17 times more than tomatoes, according to a USDA report described in the linked article). The fruit also contain high levels of Vitamins E, A, flavionids, and fatty acids. Underripe fruit are high in tannins and are very astringent, but as they ripen, they get much sweeter (especially after a bout of cold weather!) I know that there are people exploring commercial cultivation of this plant due to the berries’ nutritional value and the plant’s ease of growing. And they are super tasty!
Harvesting Autumn Olive
After 3 years of growth, the Autumn Olive bears fruit. You should look to start harvesting it somewhere in September, usually around the Fall equinox (if you live in Zone 6a like I do). A good year of fruit can have up to 8 lbs of fruit per bush (I have found that in Michigan, we only get this kind of abundance every few years). The fruit is really delicious and tart and not really like anything else out there. The closest thing I can think of is a cranberry, but autumn olives have no bitterness and are more tart.
Autumn Olives flower in the spring, and have quite a pleasant smell and nectar that my bees certainly appreciate. Seeing how many flowers there are in the spring should give you an idea about how much fruit you will find in the fall. Sometime in early September to mid October, the berries ripen going from green to orange to a dark red. It is when the whole bush is red, a deep red, and the berries are ready to fall off (and you see the birds eating them), that they are ready to pick. If you see orangish berries still on the bush, its not ready, and you should wait a few days. Tasting the bush will confirm this–even the red berries on a bush with orange berries aren’t going to be a sweet.
Be sure to pick ripe bushes before a big rain….if the fruit are quite ripe, they fall off the bush easily and a hard rain will knock them all to the ground. I had a bush I was enjoying this year, the first to ripen on my property a few weeks ago. A big storm came and dropped them all to the ground before I was able to harvest them!
Each bush also tastes slightly different–some are more tart, some are more sweet, some are more flavorful. When I am picking, I will go from bush to bush and taste a berry or two on each one. When I find a bush that tastes good, that’s the bush I pick (they are so abundant that I can skip bushes if I want). If the fruit on a particular bush tastes too astringent, wait a few days and come back–it should ripe up soon enough. I love the diversity of flavors that the different bushes produce, and so, I have certain “favorite” bushes I visit each year.
In a good year, two people can pick several or more of autumn olive in an hour or so (our record is in the photo above–10 gallons in one hour with three people But that is a bit of a rarity. More likely, its about a gallon per person per hour. In any year, the autumn olive is absolutely worth your time to pick. Autumn olive makes fantastic jelly and fruit leather due to its tart quality.
Autumn Olive Jelly
I’m going to walk you through the process of making an Autumn Olive Jelly, with photos, because this is one of the best ways to preserve these delightful fruits. One thing about the jelly–the fruit juice tends to separate from the fruit pulp as it sets, so you get these interesting mottled looking jars of jelly. I think they look kinda cool, but they might be a turn off (and frankly, that’s fine, because that’s more jelly for me).
- A bunch of autumn olives, washed
- Pomona’s pectin (described in this post)
- 1/2 cup – 1 cup honey per 4 cups of processed berries
- Hot water bath canner
- 1/2 pint or 1/4 pint jars with new lids
- Food mill
- Masher (wooden or potato)
1. Wash and prepare your berries. You want to wash your berries and also sort through them to make sure you don’t have any foreign objects, bugs, etc. This process is called “garbling” (and I have no idea where that term came from).
2. Add them to a big pot and begin cooking. Add them to a big pot and put your burner on medium high.
3. Cook and mash your fruit. You want to cook down the berries so that they are hot, and mash them down as you are cooking. Make sure to stir often so you don’t burn your berries. Once they get good and watery and they are broken up, continue onto step 4.
If you don’t want to mash your berries by hand, the alternative is to use a stick blender. This makes VERY short work of the berries, but you will still need to cook them down a bit to have them go through the food mill or through a mesh strainer. Before they are cooked, they don’t get as smooth as after, and that makes it hard to get the seeds out. Be careful you don’t splatter them everywhere….I left a real mess in the kitchen this day.
4. Use a food mill or metal strainer/wooden spoon to remove seeds. You will need to get the seeds out of the mash, and I find using a food mill works really well for this purpose. You’ll notice that the juice of the autumn olive tends to separate from the pulpy fruit and skin–that’s just how it is. Here’s a photo of the food mill in action:
The alternative is to use a metal strainer and a wooden spoon. Get a strainer with pretty large holes–it makes it MUCH easier. One like the one in the picture works well–I processed 6 gallons of berries using this method in less than an hour.
5. Prepare canner and lids. Measure out autumn olive juice and get it back on the stove. You need to measure out your juice so that you know how much you have for the purposes of adding pectin. The juice will be this awesome beautiful pinkish red…it might have foam. That’s ok. I will explain what to do with that in a bit.
6. Prepare pectin: add calcium water to mixture. You might notice that many recipes call for nearly 50% sugar. I don’t find these recipes healthy; they are too sweet and full of calories. The sugar masks the real quality taste of the berries. I found pectin called Pomona’s pectin – it allows you to can with much less sugar or to can with honey or maple syrup. So for this recipe, we are using Pomona’s pectin. You can follow the directions on the label that are specific for jelly (like using grape juice). To use this pectin, you will mix up calcium water and add it to the fruit. Next you mix the pectin itself into the honey. Finally, you mix the honey into the berry juice and bring it to a boil for a short amount of time. You can use the ratios on the instructions; I found that only a little honey is needed so I have been using 1/2 cup honey to four cups autumn olive mix. You can also add a little lemon juice–that makes a really nice addition to the jam.
7. Add mixture into jars and hot water bath process for 20 min (1/2 pints). If you have foam at this point, you can skim it off and put it in a jar. It will solidify, and then you’ll have a delightful treat to eat with a spoon. You can store the foam in the fridge and enjoy a scoop whenever you like.
8. While jars are processing, lick the spoon and enjoy the leftovers in the pot. Trust me, you don’t want to skip this step.
9. Pull out of canner, wait till jars seal, and enjoy! You will notice that autumn olive separates a bit as its sets. This is perfectly normal, but does look a bit weird. The good news about it looking weird is that if someone is going through your cabinets looking for something to eat, they might be less inclined to eat your autumn olive jam, so I consider this a natural defense mechanism. The jam is delicious!
Now if you strained this, you could probably get rid of the spoltchyness and only have one color of jelly. But I like the way it looks, with its interesting patchwork colors and shapes. Enjoy this often!
Finally, I want to direct you to also read Sam Thayer’s Autumn Olive page, because he has a lot of great info on this wonderful plant in terms of pounds per acre and so on. He suggests that some are considering commercial cultivation of these wonderful fruits because of their vitamin and mineral content, nitrogen fixing ability to regenerate the soil, and potentially high yields.