Wild Bounty (Preschool Entertainment)

Harvesting Wild Berries: Ultimate Preschool Entertainment

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.

And It's Edible!

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.

Small tree or shrub, 5-7 feet tall. Leaves powdery-silver underneath.

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:

Bright red berries of the Elaeagnus

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.

2 responses to “Wild Bounty (Preschool Entertainment)

  1. We love Russian olive, but would never dream of planting it here. I have entertained the thought though! LOL Back on the east coast, we used to have an over abundance of Russian olive, huckleberry, hackberry, wine berries, but the Russian olive was king on the land…that is of course next to the Autumn olive. These two took over the riparian zones and crowded out other native plants in Maryland where we used to live. Out here in New Mexico, the same challenges take place with Autumn olive and Russian olives. They do slash and burns in an effort to repair the riparian areas along the Rio Grande.
    I must admit that I really love the way they taste! Kudzu, on the other hand, I might actually take a bash at. We don’t have wet weather, so I don’t think we’ll have the invasive problem with Kudzu that exists like in the South East. The jury is out on that one still, but I do know that Kudzu is very nutritious and very good for animals and humans.
    Too bad I can’t buy kudzu! LOL
    Great article and photos! I love your writing.

  2. Yes, in some areas the Russian olive has become a menace, though never as bad as kudzu. We have areas where for acre after acre the ONLY thing living is kudzu, just giant forests of dead trees “leafed out” in kudzu. It’s horrible. We have Russian olive all over our property, but I agree–I wouldn’t actually plant it. We also have wild blackberries, and there are wild grapes down the street and wild plums in a neighbor’s yard. I love that about the Southeast.

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