The scent of the first fallen leaves fills the air with an invigorating aroma as summer comes to a close. Some would call this seasonal change an “Indian Summer”…I prefer to think of it as the “eves of autumn”, since our summers are typically hot and humid, though this year it has been unusually mild and cool.
I was quite surprised to see how early the Autumn Olive berries ripened – based on what I have seen in previous years, the peak ripening period has always been around late September and early October. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I headed out with my basket for the first collection of the year. Of course, it is always nice when passers-by stop and ask me what I am picking…but very few have ever heard of Autumn Olive, let alone its value as a wild fruit.
Autumn Olive, Elaeagnus umbellate, is a shrubby, drought-tolerant plant that can grow rapidly on a variety of soil types, with distinctive silver-bottomed leaves similar to that of true olives (Olea genus), from which its common name originates. It is classified as an invasive in throughout much of the continental US, and is a heavy-bearer…you can collect gallons of the edible red berries from a single bush. But perhaps the most interesting thing about these berries is the high content of lycopene, a nutrient beneficial to the prostate gland in men. In fact, Autumn Olive averages 40 to 50mg of lycopene per 100 grams of berries, compared to 3mg per 100 grams in tomatoes (Dr. Brent Black, Utah State University and Ingrid Fordham, USDA-ARS Fruit Laboratory).
Silver Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea) is a look-alike with similar leaves, except they grow in pairs whereas Autumn Olive leaves are alternate. Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) and Wolfberry (Elaeagnus commutata) are close relatives, sharing the same genus as Autumn Olive. Wolfberry is a native species from the boreal region in Canada and Alaska. Russian Olive is a widespread invasive with narrower leaves, greyish green berries which resemble olives, and grows as a large shrub attaining heights of 30 feet (9m). All three produce edible fruit.
This is what I collected in about half an hour from a young, small Autumn Olive bush. The ripe berries have a tart, sweet, and slightly astringent taste, with a tiny edible, chewy seed in each fruit. They can be eaten raw straight from the bush, and there are a number of ways of preparing them. You can squish the berries whole in a container to make a delicious pie filling or jam, though I prefer to make a fruit leather.
The first job is to sort the berries and remove any twigs and leaves that may have gotten mixed in. Mash the berries in your hands and squeeze out the clear juice into a separate container. The juice is delicious and refreshing, though it can be a bit overpoweringly astringent – in which case, mix in a splash of water and a bit of sugar…the result will taste much like pink lemonade. We will use the remaining pulp, which contains the lycopene, for the fruit leather. It is your choice to include the seeds or not – I personally like the nutty texture they add. Make sure all the berries are mashed.
Spread the pulp (and seeds, if you included them) out on aluminum foil as thinly as possible, and put in a dehydrator at 135-145 degrees F (57-63 C). If you don’t have a dehydrator, use an oven, and bake at no higher than 200 F (93 C) or the lowest temperature setting, leaving the oven door slightly open to allow airflow. Wait 6 hours for the oven or 4 hours for the dehydrator, depending on the size of your batch. Either way, it’s a good idea to check every hour to see how things are progressing. When the top of the fruit leather dries out, peel it from the foil and flip it over to dry the other side.
What you end up with is a batch of delectable, sugar-free snack rolls which will last a long time in a sealed container (no refrigeration required). It’s a great way to enjoy the season while satisfying the sweet tooth at the same time. But beware, the taste of this fruit leather can be a bit addicting, and it may disappear sooner than expected… .