The Milkweed Diaries

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Autumn Olive Mead

Dozens of small, shrubby autumn olive trees are speckled across our five acres of river bottom land. Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is an invasive exotic. . .and an abundant, nutritious, wild fruit. Of all of the invasive species I've encountered, autumn olive is the hardest to hate.

Autumn olives are one of the first trees to leaf out here on our land, and one of the earliest plants to flower. Their silvery green leaves are beautiful, and their tiny yellow flowers are heavy with a sweet scent that makes me feel drunk with Spring. Honeybees and other pollinators love the flowers, which provide an early spring meal for many beneficial insects. Then, around the time that blackberries start to ripen, the trees bear fruit. Autumn olive trees in fruit are covered with tiny red berries, packed with fruit, bursting with fruit. The berries are pearly, almost opalescent in some light, and flecked in such a way that they almost seem to be dusted with glitter. Autumn olives are magical. A hard plant to hate.

Need more evidence? Autumn olive trees are nitrogen fixers. At Sugar Creek Farm, where we took a class last spring, farmer Joe Allawos has experimented with the benefits of the nitrogen fixing capacity of autumn olive trees by planting fruit and nut trees next to autumn olive trees, and at the same time planting the same variety of tree in a spot away from any autumn olive trees. The trees planted next to the autumn olives grew much faster and when we saw them were about 50% larger than the ones planted away from the autumn olives. Autumn olive trees planted or allowed to grow in a garden or orchard will accumulate nitrogen around their roots, which is then available as on-the-spot fertilizer for other nearby plants.

Finally, there is the nutritional value of the fruit: autumn olive berries contain vitamins A, C, E, essential fatty acids, flavanoids, and carotenoids. They are especially chock full of the antioxidant carotenoid lycopen, which is considered a powerful fighter of cancer and heart disease. Tomatoes, which are the most common source of lycopene, contain a fraction of the lycopene found in autumn olives. One study by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service showed that autumn olives can contain 17 times as much lycopene as a fresh tomato.

So there it is. Beautiful. Nitrogen fixing. Nutritious. And invasive.

We have cut dozens of autumn olive trees in clearing space for gardens, but we've left a smattering growing for the time being, and we harvest as much of the fruit as we can. The taste of the fruit is a tart burst of summer--I can stand at an autumn olive tree for a good long time picking and eating on a summer afternoon.

I can never eat an autumn olive without thinking of my friend Holly, who introduced me to autumn olives on a hike in the woods almost ten years ago now, when she was six years old. She knew far more about wild foods than I did, having spent a lot of time in the woods with her knowledgeable parents, and I am always thankful to her for helping me begin to appreciate the food that is available all around us for free!

All of this said, I feel compelled to offer at least a couple of links to information about the noxious, invasive nature of Elaeagnus umbellata, so here they are:

What To Do With Autumn Olive Fruit

As long as these beautiful and edible invasives pepper our landscape, we might as well enjoy their delicious fruit.

We knew we wanted to try a batch of autumn olive mead, which we did (more on that below), but I took to the internet in search of other interesting things to do with autumn olives, since we have so many and they are so yummy.

Here's a blog with all kinds of autumn olive recipes, including a delicious-looking jam that I intend to try later this month: Dreams and Bones.

I also discovered on one of my perennial favorite blogs, Fast Grow the Weeds, a post with a recipe for an autumn olive chutney that looks divine. There will definitely be some chutney happening in my kitchen later this week -- thanks El!

In the meantime, here is the recipe for the mead we made last evening, which smells outlandishly delicious already and is a gorgeous deep, purple red color as it begins its fermentation.

Autumn Olive Mead

  • 1.5 gallons autumn olives
  • 1 gallon of honey
  • Water as needed

  • 6 gallon carboy (glass jug for fermenting)
  • Airlock (see photo)

  1. Wash and mash the autumn olives. Use your hands and create a nice, mushy, juicy slurry!
  2. Heat a large pot of water and dissolve the honey in it.
  3. Add water to the fruit slurry to make it easier to pour. Combine the honey water and fruit slurry in the carboy and add water to fill the carboy up to its shoulders.
  4. Cap with an airlock and wait!
  5. The mixture should start to bubble and continue for several weeks. If the mead is not bubbling, or develops mold, you can add storebought yeast for winemaking (champagne yeast is good). If you're lucky, the wild yeast that is present on the skin of the fruit will suffice.
  6. After the bubbling stops, siphon off the liquid into another carboy and compost the fruit dregs. Allow to ferment again until there is no more bubbling; transfer to bottles and enjoy right away as "young" mead or age for a mellower flavor.

Below: mashing the fruit to create a slurry. . .

. . . and the mead ready for fermentation!


el said...

So jellus! of all the happy fermentation going on at your place. I swore this would be the year I got into wine- and mead-making but so far it's gotten beyond me, mainly because I need to invest in the carboy and airstops etc. Sigh.

You'll like the chutney, though. The little seeds were a nice contrast. I used it a couple of times this winter to stew some tough cuts of pork and chicken and it was lovely. Good luck with jam if you should try it: sometimes it doesn't set so it's best to use Pomona pectin which hasn't ever failed to set for me.

Have fun! Our berries won't be ready until September!

jack-of-all-thumbs said...

A wonderfully succinct and balanced post. I confess that I was tempted to look for a source of the plants, but the details in one of your links on the spread of the seeds by wild birds convinced me to 'just say no'.

Thanks for the info!

lacysummer said...

I think I may have read somewhere that they become sweeter after the first frost.

We have a small autumn olive bush in our yard however the berries never make it my kids, 3 and 4, gobble them up long before the frost. They also get upset while we drive down the road and I can not stop when they see autumn olives and sumac. They freak everyone out because they will eat wild foods they know. My daughter loves purslane, raw and wilted, she freak a family friend out because she "just pick up that weed growing and ate it" the friend asked if she was going to get sick. Hmmmm, no.
It good for her

I love my kids can't operate a dvd player but can identify plants.

So glad i found your blog!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
teresajoy said...

You mention that they contain Vitamins A, C, and E. Do you have an data on the amount of these vitamins the Autumn Olive contains? All I can find on any site is that they contain "lots of lycopene". I'm having a hard time finding specific nutritional data.