Have you met Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata) yet? I absolutely love this plant. It’s abundant, easy to harvest, is insanely good for you, and is wild plant we can harvest without concern of overharvest since it’slisted as “invasive” in many states (I prefer to call it “opportunistic”). Also called Autumn Berry and Japanese Silver Berry, this northeast superfood was introduced to the US in the 1830's. It’s endemic to eastern and central Asia, including parts of the Himalayas where it is a traditional food, and has now thoroughly made itself a part of the northeast ecosystem. But they’re not just in New England! Autumn Olives can be found growing south to Florida, in the Great Lakes Region, and west to the Mississippi River. The Pacific Northwest also is home to these prolific shrubs.
Identification: ID is easy- the medium to large shrubs have alternate leaves that are silver on their undersides, sometimes have thorns, and bear small, fragrant, cream-colored, 4-petaled flowers in the spring. The berries are red with silver speckles- one of our favorite nicknames for them is “Sparkle Berries”! One poisonous look-alike is Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp)- but those shrubs don't have silver leaves and the berries don't have the silver speckles, plus Honeysuckle berries ripen in the summer not the fall. If you find a bush with silver, alternate leaves with silver-seckled berries, you’ve got Autumn Olive.
Harvest: Autumn Olives ripen in the fall-Sept through Oct here in New England. They are sour and sweet (like most berries) and get sweeter with cool nights and a frost. Flavor can vary quite a lot from bush to bush, so taste each one to see which is to your liking and harvest from that one. You will find them growing everywhere! But they especially like hedgerows, old fields and farms, and any area that was disturbed in the past. They are an early successional species and are especially abundant in fields in my area that are transitioning from meadow to forest. Be sure you’re harvesting from an area free of chemicals and remember to practice reciprocity in your harvest. For more on this look to my article “Wildcrafting, Wildtending, and Reciprocity” on this blog.
Nutritional Value: Nutritionally, these berries are just awesome. Amazingly, they are the highest known source of the potent antioxidant lycopene, which is cancer protective, anti-inflammatory and promotes longevity. The primary way the average American gets lycopene in their diet in by eating tomatoes, however Autumn Olives have been shown to contain up to 17x more lycopene than tomatoes! The berries are also rich in vitamins A, C and E, flavonoids and essential fatty acids. And they're free.
What to Do With Them: There are sooooo many ways to preserve the abundant Autumn. I’ve made jams, added them to applesauce, made into and incredible sweet and warming fall cordial, frozen for smoothies and baking, and of course they’re also just super yummy and safe to eat raw. They also make a great substitute for tomatoes for folks with Nightshade sensitivities. But one of my favorite ways to preserve them is in fruit leather and I’ve found that their sour flavor profile combines especially well with the sweetness of apples, which also happen to be in season the same time as Autumn Olives, making an amazing bioregional, localvore treat!
Autumn Olive & Apple Fruit Leather
Autumn Olives 2 cups
Chopped Apple 1 cup
Food Mill (optional, but will make your job easier if you want to remove the Autumn Olive seeds- see details below)
Baking Sheet or Pyrex Baking Dish
Blender or Food Processor
Step 1: Start by combining your Autumn Olives and Apples in a pan with just a tiny bit of water. Chop the apples into small 1-2 inch pieces. It’s ok if some of your Autumn Olives have stems attached to the berries but be sure not to include larger twigs or leaves. If you have more than 2 cups of Autumn Olives, then use a ratio of roughly 2/3rds Autumn Olive and 1/3rd Apple. Cook it all down on low with a little water, stirring often to make sure there's no burning happening on the bottom.
Step 2: Once it’s all cooked put the entire mixture through a food mill to remove the apple seeds and Autumn Olive seeds. NOTE: You don’t have to do this part. If you don’t have a food mill then be sure not to include any apple cores since otherwise you won’t be able to easily remove the seeds. And having the seeds of the Autumn Olives is simply a matter of preference. They likely have some nutritional value and are not at all harmful. For some folks they just like the texture better with or without. The picture here of my fruit leather contains the seeds- if you look close you can see them!
Step 3: Put the entire mix (whether or not you used a food mill) into a blender or food processor and puree well
Step 4: Line a baking tray or oven safe pyrex dish with parchment paper and spread your pureed Autumn Olive and Apple mix thinly (1/2-1 inch thick) onto the paper. Bake at 170 degrees for about 6 to 7 hours, being sure to check it often, since sometimes the edges burn a little bit...if the edges are burning and the center is still moist keep cooking it, knowing that you’ll just have to trim off the edges but the majority of your fruit leather will be perfect. Try it as you go, since it’s "to taste" in terms of how leathery you want your fruit leather to be. I like mine still pliable and not crisp. Basically you’re going for the consistency of fruit roll-ups! NOTE: if you have a food dehydrator you could use that for this recipe instead of the oven!
Store it between wax paper in the fridge where it will stay fresh for weeks, or freeze and take-out as needed. Enjoy your local, free, nutrient-dense, antioxidant rich super- food fruit leather!
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