One of the best wild fruits to be found in this city is also one of the least known. But for two or three months a year, across New York, Asian-born autumn-olives (no relation to the briny tidbit submerged in your martini) are heavy with scarlet fruit that taste something like a cross between a currant and a pie cherry.
You might notice these trees in the spring, when, for a few weeks, an invisible curtain of scent makes you stop, sniffing. Under the silver-green canopy of the leaves’ undersides are concealed thousands of tiny yellow tubular flowers in intensely scented clusters. The easier, and more useful, time to recognize the tree is right now, when the red currant–like autumn-olives are clearly identified by their silver-stippled skins.
For most of the year the silver-leaved trees are unobtrusive; it took me years to discover them, due to an arboreal case of mistaken identity. When I was new to designing container gardens, I dived headfirst into Linda Yang’s classic 1990 book on city gardening, which recommended Russian olive trees for the tundra-like conditions of New York rooftops. But I made what turns out to be a common mistake, conflating Russian olive, whose fruit is a mealy green-yellow drupe, with autumn-olive.
It took an encounter with alcohol to educate me in the ways of the Elaeagnus genus.
At a picnic with Ellen Zachos, the Manhattan-based forager uncorked a bottle of wine made from the silver-flecked scarlet berries of wild autumn-olive trees growing near her home in Pennsylvania. Golden, with sinuous legs that clung to our swirled glasses, it was dry and delicious. I was reminded of cider, but also of sauvignon blanc. I knew that the Russian olives I had been planting in rooftop gardens bore no red fruit, and so the light bulb clicked: Two fruiting trees. Both highly invasive. One delicious, one not.
Suddenly, at the end of that summer, I saw autumn-olives everywhere. You will, too, if you look.
When you come upon the trees in the fall, the raw berries’ taste might at first seem repellent. You have tried them too early. Their sour juice is made unpalatable by a tannic fur that coats your tongue. Wait a few weeks. In the cooling air the fruit remains plump while chemistry is at work beneath its thin skin. The tannin recedes, the berry becomes softer and a sweet edge smooths the sour. They are ripe for picking. Now they burst with a rounded tartness irresistible to any palate drawn to red currants or pie cherries. At this stage they are delicious eaten out of hand, right there, their seeds swallowed or spat. Gather them by the bagful to take home.
Turn them into jams or jellies. The pale juice, separated from the solids, makes the basis of an austere, mysterious and tartly sweet chilled soup at the beginning of a grand autumn dinner party. Cook down the carmine pulp and spoon it onto seared pork chops. Reduce it to a syrup and drizzle over jiggling panna cotta or stir into whipped cream for a fall fool. Mix the berry pulp with some flour and sugar and bake beneath a buttery crust for a warm crumble. Swirl the puree into an almond frangipane for a sticky treat to be enjoyed with strong coffee. I discovered the berries (forgotten in a bowl) a month after picking them, and, now dried, they became a currant-like addition to scones.
Pick as many as you like. The exotic plant, resident in the States since 1830, was widely planted in the mid 20th century on rehabilitated strip mines and harsh highway medians to contain erosion. Oops. These highly adaptable trees are set to take over the continent. Eat them to a standstill to prevent their spread.
Now-dated conventional thinking supposes that a plant in a cultivated setting is a plant safe from escape. How can a foreign ornamental in a city park or garden possibly affect the woodland upstate, or the meadows across the Hudson River (as a well-known New York City garden designer replied when I questioned her use of invasives in most of her urban designs)? The answer wears feathers. Consider the bird: New York City is on migration’s super-highway—the Atlantic Flyway. Stuffed full of berries, birds drop seeds as they fly. And so these plants leave parks and gardens and sprout into a problem.
But not if you eat them first. Ripening as early as August and sometimes carrying fruit through to early November, autumn-olive trees are dotted all over the city and promise to be heavily loaded in this year. Find them near the Hudson, in Central Park, on the shores of Jamaica Bay and on Floyd Bennett Field.
While passing birds may curse you, rest assured that by depriving them you are helping to halt the spread of a species whose chief antagonist to date has been Roundup. In the age of Monsanto and resistant superweeds, eating invasive plants has never seemed more virtuous.
They will yield bucketfuls if you are brave.
Telling your Elaeagnus From Your Elbow
Autumn-olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), aka autumnberry and Japanese silverberry: round scarlet fruit, occasionally bright yellow with silver flecks. Tart and juicy. Invasive.
Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), aka oleaster: oblong yellow-green fruit. Dry, sweetish and mealy. Invasive.
“Before you pick your berries, taste them” says Viljoen. “They vary from tree to tree.” She also notes to let the jam fully cool in the saucepan before you jar it. Due to the fruit’s high levels of lycopene, which is not water-soluble, sometimes the juice will separate from the pulp in the set jam. It doesn’t affect flavor, says Viljoen, but you can ensure lovelier jars by letting the jam completely cool to room temperature in the saucepan and stirring it frequently to keep everything mixed.
3 pounds ripe autumn-olives, rinsed and dried
1 cup water
2 pounds sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
In a large saucepan crush the berries very lightly with a wooden spoon or potato masher. Add the water and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring, until berries are just soft enough to press in batches through a strainer or food mill to remove the seeds.
Return the pulp to a clean saucepan over medium heat. Add the sugar, stirring to dissolve. Keep at a simmer and skim off any foam that forms at the sides and in the middle. Add the lemon juice. When the jam reaches gel point* turn off the heat. When fully cooled, pour into sterilized glass jars.
*Gel point test: Dip a large metal spoon sideways onto the jam. When two drops of liquid meet towards the middle, setting point has been reached.
Recipe courtesy of Marie Viljoen