I have numerous invasive plant species on my property. Of the woody species, there are two trees I literally hate, Ailanthus and Mulberry, and there is a particular shrub that I want to hate, but with which I have a love-hate relationship. Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellate) is a shrub that gets rather large and can spread in clumps, crowding out other plants, thereby reducing diversity. Even bird diversity becomes reduced in areas where autumn olive takes over despite the fact that birds eat and spread the seeds initially. It has several common names: Autumn olive, Elaeagnus, Oleaster, and Japanese Silverberry, but I’ve only ever heard people use Autumn olive in Virginia.
Have you ever seen those environmental brochures titled Do I have to mow all that? They promote the benefits of habitat edges and riparian borders for both wildlife and stream health. They discuss how not mowing all your lawn will save time and money, and reduce fossil fuel emissions. I believe this, and erred in favor of the brochure’s wisdom when we moved to Halcyon. The previous owners mowed clear to the stream bank. They mowed all 6 surrounding fields or sections that are not what we call the yard proper – the areas immediately surrounding the house. They mowed so much that some areas were just clay, a remnant from the hundred years that Halcyon had been a dairy farm. I didn’t want to mow all that.
I didn’t have time to mow all that anyway. Work, long summer vacations once I started teaching, and sabbaticals all insured that plants and trees could continue their slow and steady marches to claim land unhindered by any sort of regular clearing. Areas that originally were bare clay are now brush habitat or beginning succession woods. We have an abundance of rabbits, birds, squirrel, and deer. We’ve seen turkey, fox, and bear sign, opossum, raccoon, beaver, and a mink at Halcyon over that last 10 years. This is because the habitat for wildlife has improved.
Well, habitat quantity has improved. I’m not so sure about quality. It turns out that I do have to mow more than I’d like or we would be invaded by ailanthus, mulberry, honeysuckle, multiflora rose, garlic mustard, and yes, autumn olive. The autumn olive seems to have exploded in numbers. This is why I hate it. So why do I love it?
It is an attractive shrub. The undersides of the leaves are silvery, and look lovely when the wind is blowing. The flowers are creamy white and lend a subtle fragrance to the air when in bloom. All those blossoms become a small red fruit with one central pit – hence the name olive. It is the fruit that causes my ambivalence with this invasive species. When I first didn’t want to mow everything, or poison the invasives, I thought of other ways to keep them from spreading. I found a website on invasive species called If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Eat ‘em. I could make jam! And so was born a new tradition for me that nurtures more than my material body.
Autumn olives are high in lycopene, a phytochemical found in tomatoes and some other red vegetables. Lycopene is an antioxidant and is being studied as a potential agent for cancer prevention. That is a good reason to eat the berries, but it would certainly be a lot easier to just eat more tomatoes. I don’t make the jam merely because it is healthy. I make it because it slows me down, puts me in the moment. When I started doing this, I was still teaching and I desperately needed to slow my mind and be in the moment. I needed to capture a fall day and fully live it because they were just flying by.
Nothing about making the jam is easy. They are a pain to pick. I usually collect in half hour increments between September and October, freeze them until I have enough, and then begin the cooking and canning process. It is also an onerous process to get the juice from the berry. I use a conical aluminum berry press and a lot of elbow grease. Then there is the time spent cooking down to jell stage and canning. Perhaps because it takes a lot of time is why I feel so singularly engaged while completing this task. Added to this feeling is the (false) notion that I am reducing or using up an invasive species, and a sense of self-reliance that comes from doing something myself with a wild species that I’ve found.
This year the autumn olives were ready early. I was mowing in early August and was astonished to find bushes full of berries ready to pick – usually they are not ready until September, and I’ve picked as late as mid-October. Have I just never noticed early berries before or did all our summer rain help with fruit production? I looked forward to picking those berries.
For some reason, though I did not get to that task for several weeks and when I walked that field, basket in hand, I could not find a single autumn olive with any berries. It seems the birds beat me to all of them. Would I not be able to can and eat autumn olive jam this year? I thought of naked pork roast or cheese and crackers without that dollop of deep burgundy jam and I was sad.
Luckily, there are more fields and more autumn olive. It has not been great picking and I’ve collected less berries than other years, but there will be a canning day this year. I’ll pick a chilly or rainy day, make a fire, roll up my sleeves and marvel how time slows down.