Aside from the common dandelion green and herbs in my backyard, autumn olives are my first true foraging score. I learned how to identify them at Holcomb Farm where I’m currently pursuing a nutrition certification. They grow on the branches of the bush, and the leaves delicately grow in an alternating pattern, with a silvery finish to their underside. The berries are ripest in the autumn and you know you’ve got it right when you see the little gold hued speckles on their plump red skin. The first time I pulled some off a branch, I thought, “How can this be!” feeling so fulfilled and full of excitement to be pulling something from the earth that I could ingest right then and there. How many people walk right by these berry filled branches on this trail without a clue of the nutrition that is just an arm’s length away?
Now that I am aware of this wild edible, I spot it fairly frequently. I notice it in particular abundance lining the guard rails of the highway. I have to be careful driving these days with my wandering eyes, drinking in the possibilities of what lies in the plants all around me. On walks and long drives as I kid I would often have my eyes glued to the ground thinking that there had to be some use to all the growth around me; at times it seemed like plants were reaching out as if meant for me. I now know that this instinct had some true value and it is in my hands to educate myself and get to know my plant allies.
From Alison Birks, TIOSN: “Autumn Olive-Elaeaganus umbellata: Berries of this invasive shrub or small tree are edible and high in carotenoids, including lycopene, B-carotene and zeaxanthin. This is a local sustainable “superfood”. Harvest berries in fall when they are the sweetest.”
After the first weekend at TIOSN, my eyes move quick, scanning the walls of green around me. The past few days as I pulled into my work place, I started tuning into this marshy, lively area about 50 feet from my building entrance. I finally walked over to the little patch of bushes at the end of the day. I noticed little bits of red and silver calling me over. In hopes that my hunch was right I brought over my clean lunch container in case I had found a hot spot. To my delight I am immediately crouched down, zeroing in and grabbing a bundle of the little aforementioned berries and popping them into my mouth. Sweet, highly astringent, with a fibrous seed (that are high in Omega 3 fatty acids!). It’s quiet and cool with the ground slightly wet. There’s little day light left except a touch of late day golden hue illuminating a branch here and there. The bush branches are dripping with untouched autumn olives and a huge smile spreads across my face. I let out a hearty full laugh, thinking about what someone might think leaving work at the end of the day and being greeted with the sight of my butt in the air and my head in the bushes (this is right within an office building parking lot, mind you). Driving home I was riding high on the finds of my adventure. I love the exclusive feeling of discovering something that requires a little bit of special knowledge to be able to make use of it. It’s also special to think of the exclusivity of this little fruit to the north east region-this feels powerful to me.
Since my first mini harvest I’ve been eating these straight and have also popped some in the dehydrator where they have developed a deeper sweetness and will keep for much longer with some of their moisture taken out. I was taught that you can make fruit leather out of these and use the sour-sweet pungent juice for the acid in salad dressing or as part of an elixir of some sort (perhaps mulled with cinnamon, lemon, vanilla bean would be amazing…) I hope to get out again soon to collect more of this special berry.