Meet the autumn olive. It’s got a rather melodious Latin name, the Elaeagnus umbellata. Also known by other pretty names such as the Japanese silverberry, autumn elaeagnus or spreading oleander, it’s a small tree indigenous to eastern Asia. Today, it can still be found from the Himalayas to Japan, as well as in North America, into which it was introduced in 1830. And that’s precisely where I first saw it, growing along the street I walked daily to and from school. It was the scent of its flowers in the spring that first attracted my attention. Clusters of tiny, tubular cream coloured flowers, with a four-lobed corolla pointed at the tips, hang off the branches, emitting a fragrance that spreads surprisingly far given their diminutive size. It’s not quite a soft floral perfume; there’s something a little heady, a little intoxicating about it, and I always knew when I was approaching one of the trees in bloom.
The leaves of the autumn olive are equally attractive, being a dark green on the upper surface, and having silvery undersides as a result of tiny scales. They’re alternate, elliptical, and rather stiff, but are adorned with wavy edges that give the entire tree a pleasantly elegant, artistic look. The trunk is rough, split, and furrowed, providing a lovely rustic texture. Branches, however, tend to be smoother, and are gnarled and extensively branched, giving an interesting winter silhouette. After pollination, flowers develop into tiny drupes, dimpled at the bottom. These start off yellowish and eventually turn a freckly red when ripe. As its name implies, they tend to be ready for picking in the autumn. Birds seem to love these berries, and I’d often see starlings, which lived in the oaks next to it, snatching some off the tree. It’s no surprise, since the berries are said to taste very pleasant to humans as well: they’re reportedly sweet, fleshy, and are thought to be rich in vitamins and lycopene.
The autumn olive is able to grow in a range of soil pH and water content, and by virtue of being able to fix nitrogen in its roots, can also survive in poor soils. Its hardiness, ability to prevent erosion, and provision of food and lodging for wildlife caused it to be widely planted in North America during the mid 1900s. Unfortunately, its propensity to out-compete other native species and interfere with nutrient cycling has led it to be classified as an invasive species in areas such as Ohio, U.S.A., and Alberta, Canada.
Though not very forgiving towards its own kind, the autumn olive is otherwise innocuous to humans. No part of it appears to be toxic, and really, compared to terrifying plant species such as the gympie-gympie, it’s an absolute dear. I have a particular fondness for these trees in the rain at night- they were a wondrously beautiful sight and sound to behold. Raindrops pattered softly on their leaves and dripped off the tips, sparkling in the light of the streetlights and setting off the silvery undersides of the leaves most perfectly. Rarely, indeed, does one see a tree so graceful and elegant, and yet so weathered and strong.