NORWAY — On a sunny and unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon in October, a handful of volunteers are picking red and white speckled berries hand over fist at Shepard’s Farm Preserve.
Depending on who you talk to, they’re harvesting the “invasive,” yet highly nutritious, autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata for those who enjoy scientific names). Autumn olives are native plants of China, Japan and Korea, which came to the United States in 1830 from Japan for cultivation purposes as ornamental plants, according to the Nature Conservancy, Invasive Species Atlas of New England and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The Norway recreational hot spot is also a great habitat for the autumn olive, which lines the edge of the preserve’s woods. This is why the Western Foothills Land Trust – which manages the 19-acre Farm Preserve – held an autumn olive foraging event on Sunday, Oct. 15.
The harvesting was led by Kelly Hodgkins, who teaches biology to high school students in an area home schooling co-op. Autumn olives are a deciduous shrub (meaning they shed their green, elliptically shaped leaves annually) that can grow up to 20 feet tall and 30 feet wide. The plants can produce up to 200,000 seeds, or 80 pounds, of fruit a season, according to the Nature Conservancy and Invasive Species Atlas of New England.
“These are just coming in right now,” Hodgkins said. “Especially with the warmer weather we have been having, I was worried we wouldn’t have any for this week. They come in more when we get nice cold weather.”
The berries can range from pink to red (and sometimes orange) and the white dots that pepper the outside of the fruit are actually scales. At least in Maine, the redder the berry, the riper it usually is.
All the harvesters are women, who help cut back on the autumn olive population, and Susan Jacoby gets in the zone while picking the berries.
“It’s really so nice that it’s easy … because it’s sort of meditative. You don’t have to fight it. You get satisfaction pulling them off the branch,” she said.
It’s easy for kids to harvest, Hodgkins added. Center for Ecology-Based Economy Executive Director Scott Vlaun said by phone he and his son, Jasper, harvested 5 gallons of berries in about two hours last season.
Seven-year-old Maesa Rossignol-Kane of Otisfield is there on Sunday with her mom, Seal Rossignol, helping gather berries. Maesa (and the others) taste test the berries along the way and she announces when she bites into a tart one. The less ripe ones taste more tart, similar to a cranberry, but have an edible pit. The more ripe berries are a bit sweeter and can be popped like candy.
Maesa has never picked autumn olives before and warned of the long thorns that hide along the branches after she pricked herself.
“Whenever the juice gets on your hands, it looks like you’re bleeding,” Maesa commented.
While Vlaun and Hodgkins like to make jam from autumn olives, Rossignol decided to take a different approach.
“I got a fruit leather recipe,” she said. “I’m excited.”
There are different ideas about the nature of autumn olives and what to do with them.
“There’s two schools of thought – some people [want to] cut them down, get rid of them,” Hodgkins said. “Scott Vlaun is a big advocate of keeping them, controlling them, cutting them back so they don’t take over a field, but if they’re there, use them.”
Lee Dassler, executive director of the Western Foothills Land Trust, considers autumn olives to be “very invasive.” Up on a hill in the preserve is a large swath of autumn olives and she points out the plants that were cut back.
“We had these all mowed to the trees last fall and this is just one year’s growth,” she said as she stood in front robust bushes that grew out again and teemed with red and white speckled berries.
The most effective way to get rid of them is to cut them back every year and spray a plant killer on it, though spraying chemicals on a plant isn’t enticing to her.
“The thought is if you do it enough times, the plant will just give up,” she said.
Invasive Species Atlas of New England warns that if the plant is cut and left alone “it resprouts abundantly” and even burning isn’t an effective way to get rid of it since it resprouts from the stump.
Vlaun said he personally questions the whole term invasive, especially when it comes to autumn olives, and noted the dichotomy of native and invasive species.
“Invasive species” usually colonize ecosystems that have already been disturbed or were disturbed then neglected, such as a pasture that was left alone after it was cleared, he added.
“They’re not going to come into an intact ecosystem, typically, and displace natives,” he said about autumn olives and other species considered to be “invasive.” “I think the autumn olive is easy enough to manage by picking and mowing or grazing with goats. … It would keep the autumn olive at bay.
“It is a highly nutritious super food. To resort, like people have in the past, to spraying chemicals on it is counter intuitive,” Vlaun continued. “I am not afraid of plants so much. I am more afraid of toxic chemicals and wasting fossil fuels in trying to eradicate things we think are a threat.”
According to the Nature Conservancy and Invasive Species Atlas of New England, autumn olives can survive the effects of salt and drought and since it has “nitrogen-fixing root nodules,” it can grow in unfavorable soils. These groups note the bush can suppress other plants’ growth because of the shade it creates.
Dassler moved to western Maine from New York City in 1992. In preparation for her move, she read Barbara Demrosch’s “The Garden Primer,” to learn about gardening in the Pine Tree State since she wrote it in Maine. The book was first published in the 1980s.
“The book … was talking about the autumn olive being a great shrub tree for houses because it’s got three season’s interest. It will turn a beautiful color leaf so it’s great in the autumn, you’ve got these red berries in the autumn,” Dassler said. “The berries, if they’re not eaten, will hang on through winter. It’s very pretty in the spring [with] these lovely little white flowers. It’s a nice tree.
“Well she’s republished that book and it just says, ‘Don’t go anywhere near this.’ We didn’t know,” Dassler continued.
Vlaun noted the idea of native and invasive species are all relative to time, as plants have been moving around the planet forever.
“What is native here now is not going to be ‘native’ here in 50 years,” he said, adding this is the same for whatever was native to Maine 1,000 years ago isn’t the case today. “I think we have to avoid getting stuck in time.”
Dassler noted Departments of Transportation across the country encouraged the use of the autumn olives to help with bank erosion and soil conservation. This, along with promoting the plant as a good wildlife habitat, began in the 1950s, according to the Nature Conservancy.
On the East Coast, autumn olives can be found from Maine to Virginia, according to the Invasive Species Atlas of New England, and the plant has been found as far west as Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri. It grows in all the New England states.
In addition to DOTs promoting the plant years ago, birds help spread it.
“Birds eat it and fly,” Vlaun said. “Birds know it’s great food.”
“We think deer like them, too,” Hodgkins said. “We’ve been finding a lot of deer poop.”
Vlaun said it’s important to recognize colonizing plants, such as autumn olives.
“I am not saying we should put plants out in the landscape willy nilly,” he said. “It’s our job to manage them. … If we can manage them for food and medicine, then all the better than trying to eradicate them by spraying chemicals.”
And even though Vlaun and Dassler don’t necessarily see eye to eye when it comes to autumn olives, he was glad there was a harvesting event.
“I am really happy to see what the Land Trust is doing to educate people,” he said.
Hodgkins and Vlaun note the taste of the berries ranges from plant to plant. A simple taste test in a 30-foot area at Shepard’s Farm Preserve quickly proves this.
“More sun, more water, maybe even the age of plant,” could explain the different tastes, Hodgkins said. “These berries might be a little more riper,” she mused.
“Some will be ripe, some won’t. It’s worth checking each bush out and getting the best ones at the time that you’re there,” Vlaun said.
There are health benefits associated with this little red berry.
“It has lycopenes, which are higher than in any other vegetables, even a tomato. … They have 20 times more lycopene than a tomato,” Hodgkins said. “It builds antioxidants.”
Dassler notes this also helps build up immune systems.
According to the USDA, lycopenes can help prevent chronic diseases and events such as heart attacks and different types
of cancer, including prostate.
Vlaun said a lack of access to nutritious foods is a problem that persists in the area. He’d like to see someone start or expand a business to buy autumn olives from people.
“Then you’re sort of putting a bounty on it in a way,” he said. “If we create a market for it, then it will sort of stay put.”