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What to do with autumn olive berries

Updated on September 4, 2015

Disclaimer

We do not recommend the picking of wild foods unless you are professionally trained or accompanied by a professional. Never eat wild foods unless you are certain that you have no allergies or reactions to eating such foods. We do not assume responsibility for any ill effects of eating wild foods. Please educate yourself before you harvest anything.

What they look like

Clusters of Autumn Olives hang from branches in late August.
Clusters of Autumn Olives hang from branches in late August.

Introduction

Autumn olives, also sometimes called autumn berries, are edible berries growing wild in overgrown fields and along fence rows throughout much of the United States. They begin ripening in August, but the best times for picking are in the fall.

The berries grow on large shrubs with leaves that are silvery color underneath, hence the olive name. They are not actually olives, but are berries that naturally grow in parts of Russia and Asia. Thanks to the birds who enjoy eating the berries, they have naturalized in many areas, and can be somewhat of a nuisance for farmers and land owners. They are considered to be invasive plants.

They grow and look similar to inedible Japanese Honeysuckle shrubs whose berries ripen in early to mid summer.

What do they taste like?

Autumn olives are very similar to goumi berries (which ripen in late June), but are much smaller with less pulp on the fruit. They have an astringent and tart flavor that can make your mouth feel slightly dry and maybe pucker a little bit.

When harvesting wild autumn olives, different shrubs can have different flavors and ripening periods. Some have more of a bitter flavor, and some are more pleasant in taste. We have noticed that birds prefer the berries of some shrubs over others (as they do our wild black cherries) presumably because of difference in flavor. Some people think that colder weather improves their flavor.

The berries eaten right off the bush have an interesting flavor that can be exciting at first, but after eating a handful, it usually is enough, and the desire to keep eating is diminished. The berries are very small with a big seed in the center. The seeds can be eaten, but you may want to spit them out after chewing them a bit.

Wait until berries ripen to a dark red color for better flavor. The ripe berries will remain on the branches for much longer than many other types of berries, unless, of course, they are eaten by wild animals.

Picking Berries

Picking autumn olives requires patience. Since they are so small, it can take a long time to pick a significant amount.

If it is a productive year for autumn olives, many branches of the shrub will be covered with clusters of berries. I prefer to bring a large plastic bowl with me to hold underneath the berries while I loosen them from the branches and let them fall into the bowl below.

Bowl of autumn berries
Bowl of autumn berries

Older autumn olive shrubs can grow very tall, and picking some of the taller branches can be nearly impossible. I have at times cut taller younger branches with a pruner, and brought clusters of these branches home to pick the berries off of separately.

There may be some small thorns on the branches with the berries, so be sure to be careful not to get pricked while picking.

Preparing the harvest

Once you have harvested your berries, you will want to pick out any leaves or debris that may be mixed with the berries. Some berries have a small portion of stem attached to them that can be removed if desired, but they should not affect your final product if left on.
One of my favorite ways to prepare these berries is to turn them into a tasty jam-like puree. This is simple and easy to do.

Berries in blender
Berries in blender

Blend the berries

First, put the berries in a blender and blend.

Depending on what type of blender you have, you may have to stop the blender and mix the ingredients several times before they will be thoroughly blended. If you have too much trouble blending the berries, you may add a tiny bit of water to help the process, though I prefer the mix to be undiluted.

Autumn olive berries after blending
Autumn olive berries after blending

Unless you have a very powerful blender, you should be able to thoroughly blend the autumn olives without breaking apart the seeds. This is good, because you want to strain these out.

Autumn olive puree in food mill
Autumn olive puree in food mill

Extracting the pulp

I find it easiest to use a food mill to separate the pulp from the seeds. It is simple and easy, and very little pulp is lost in the process.

If you are using a food mill similar to the one in the photos, you may need to loosen the tension a little by unscrewing the bottom nut holding the spring in place. This helps the mill go over the seeds without as much resistance.

Autumn olive seeds remaining in food mill
Autumn olive seeds remaining in food mill

Results

When the autumn berry pulp has been separated from the seeds, you will have your finished product: a colorful and vibrant puree with an exotic and unique flavor!

This puree is just delightful. It doesn't last long around me, as it usually is consumed on sliced home made bread. It is delicious eaten this way, but I imagine adding some almond butter would make a great addition.

The flavor of the puree reminds me of something that would pair well with meats such as fish, or maybe even turkey as a substitute for cranberry sauce, but since my diet is predominantly vegetarian, I have not tried this.

If you are a connoisseur of fine artisan cheeses, you would certainly be able to find a cheese to pair with this sauce.

I also imagine that wine makers would enjoy experimenting with this fruit when seeking variety and novelty for their brews.

The flavor alone is very acceptable to my taste, but for those with more of a sweet tooth, you may want to use a sweetener. The first time I made this I added a touch of honey to the blender to help it in its blending task. The honey flavor was too strong and overpowering, so I ended up picking more berries to dilute the honey flavor. The honey did tone down the astringent undertones, but since then I have excluded the honey and am satisfied.

Autumn olive berry puree spread on crusty home baked wheat and barley bread.
Autumn olive berry puree spread on crusty home baked wheat and barley bread.

Conclusion, notes, and afterthoughts

The most recent batch that I made used approximately 1.5 cups of berries, and yielded about 1/2 cup of puree.

Though I enjoy eating this abundantly, others may only wish to consume small portions at a time, and therefore should refrigerate the remaining portion if it is not going to be consumed that day. The jam should last for several days in the refrigerator.

The flavor of this puree is exotic, and could be used for gourmet creations (especially desserts!). Even so, don't be surprised if you do not enjoy the flavor. The taste is for those with more adventuresome palates. The flavor does have a slightly bitter or astringent quality that might be more easier noticed by some individuals. Also, tart foods consumed immediately after sweet foods or drinks can have much more pronounced and undesirable flavors.

If you are fortunate enough to have this plant growing abundantly, you may want to preserve some "jam" for winter. I did this last year using a similar process with cooking added. The results were delightful.

What I did was to take the berries and cook them in a pot over medium heat. If I remember correctly, a little bit of water was added to prevent the berries from burning. Being sure to stir regularly, I heated the berries until they began to be cooked, and then crushed them with a potato masher to extract the juice. I continued to stir and mash until they were cooked enough to run through the food mill and separate the seeds from the pulp and juice. I then returned the juice and pulp to the pot and cooked on low/medium heat stirring continuously until thoroughly cooked. I did add some arrowroot powder to help thicken the pulp because it was a little bit watery, and once I was convinced it was all cooked enough I put it in 1/2 pint jars with canning lids on tight. As the jam cooled with the canning lids screwed tightly in pace, the jars sealed themselves with a popping noise. You may want to try just using the blender method to separate the seeds, and then cook the remaining pulp, but it may be quick to burn, so be careful, and maybe add a little water if it doesn't cook properly.

One problem with cooking autumn berry jam in the method described above is that the jam separates as it sits in storage. Autumn olives are similar to tomatoes in this respect (and are much higher in lycopene!), and you may have to stir the jam prior to serving or spreading.

The following month, I attended a festival which traditionally serves buckwheat pancakes, and because I do not use syrup or butter on my pancakes, I brought a jar of autumn olive jam with me and spread it on the pancakes. It was an excellent combination that was very memorable and worth repeating.

Since I learned that this fruit originated in Russia and Asia, I have been curious as to what culinary uses these cultures have used it for. If anyone who hails from these lands are familiar with the plant and the traditional uses for it, please share!


Photos of wild autumn olive shrubs

I have some additional photos of autumn olive shrubs which I am including below. There is an example of a younger shrub and older and more mature shrubs in the photos. Some shrubs even grow into giant thickets as they send up addition sprouts from runners.

Though cultivated varieties are sometimes planted, this plant is considered invasive. The farmers and residents of our area dislike the plant for this reason. We have one growing against a storage building, and have cut the plant down numerous times, only for it to grow back to 6 foot tall the following summer. The neighbor's tractor failed to pull the plant out of the ground. It may not be the most invasive plant in the world, but you still might not want to introduce it into your area if it is not already naturalized there.

A younger Autumn Olive shrub.
A younger Autumn Olive shrub.
Berries Close up
Berries Close up
More berries
More berries
A good crop
A good crop
These two shrubs are getting pretty tall (probably about 12 to 15 feet).  They can get even taller, and will continue to expand in width.
These two shrubs are getting pretty tall (probably about 12 to 15 feet). They can get even taller, and will continue to expand in width.

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