Elaeagnus angustifolia, also known as Russian Olive, grows abundantly (and invasively) throughout the Southeast, yet I’ve learned that most moms don’t realize this kid-pleasing berry is totally edible and about the most fun a 2- or 3-year-old child can have in an afternoon.
Like the more commonly villified kudzu plant, Russian Olives outcompete many native plants, earning it a spot on many states’s “invasive plants” list. Its success stems in part from the fact that its roots fix nitrogen in the soil, enabling it to survive and thrive even in very poor soils. In addition, it is extremely resistant to damage from browsing animals, and its seeds, which a mature plant makes hundreds of every year, germinate readily.
These same qualities mean that wherever you are, you are probably not far from a wild bounty of sweet nutrition, if you only know what to look for.
Each plant ripens at its own rate, but we are in the height of the Russian olive season here in the Carolina Piedmont right now, so it should not be hard to recognize the plant by its bright red berries:
At other times of the year, look for the powdery/silvery underside of the leaves of the plant, which grows most commonly in verges where woods meet open areas, though it also grows readily in the woods and in cleared fields as well. Watch for tiny, creamy yellow flowers in April and May, green, developing berries in May and June and ripening at the end of June and throughout July.
The berries are sweet but slightly tart, with a mealy texture and a large unpalatable seed in the center, plus they are small, making it difficult to harvest a significant quantity at a time, all of which explain why the plant has not been cultivated commercially. But for roadside snacks and toddler entertainment, it’s hard to beat a good patch of Russian Olive. A mature plant is extremely prolific, producing enough berries to keep a small child very, very busy for a very, very long time. For which ability any sane mother will forgive its environmental sins.
Plus, the berries are incredibly nutritious. According to the USDA, the berry contains 17 times more lycopene than the highly-touted tomato. Plus, according to many reports, beta carotene, vitamins A, C, and E, flavonoids, and essential fatty acids. They can be eaten raw off the bush, or pulped for use in recipes such as jams, fruit leather, etc. I can’t vouch for specific recipes, though–we are always so busy eating them we never collect enough extra to try.
If you’re going to try these, I recommend you look for an existing source, and don’t throw seeds back on the ground–the plant has enough of an edge over native competition without us helping it to reproduce (though I admit that in our yard, I do spit the seeds on the ground, after crunching them first–there is a small somewhat tasty pulp in the middle if you crunch it just right–but I’m careful to spit them into the lawn where the grass is regularly mowed). If you want to plant something in your yard, go with blueberries–they’ll take a little longer to establish, but the berries are larger, tastier, and have the same preschool-entertainment value. But if you come across Russian olives in the wild or in your yard–partake, enjoy, and share with your little one. And send me pictures.