If you’ve never heard specifically of Russian olives before, you may picture something black or green that is soft and round–possibly the size of your thumb. Something that isn’t grown in gardens in the United States. Something that you won’t be able to forage for.
The Russian Olive (Elaegnus angustifolia), however, isn’t the soft little fruit you may be thinking of. Instead, it’s a smaller silvery-green nut-like fruit that can be foraged for in the U.S.
To the untrained eye, it may not seem appealing. But to one who is adventurous and knowledgeable, it can be quite the sweet treat–even considered a pricey delicacy in places like Turkey.
Where to find a Russian olive tree
Russian olive trees are a Eurasian native that were widely introduced to the North American continent in the 1800s as a means to stabilize embankments. Due to their invasive quality, they spread widely on their own, and are now considered an invasive plant.
Because they are considered a noxious weed in Colorado and New Mexico, one should never purchase and plant these even on their own property.
Russian Olives thrive at an elevation of 4500-6000 feet in elevation, and are nitrogen fixers–which means they thrive even in poor soil. They can be found down to a zone 2.
Places where you are likely to find them at this elevation include floodplain forests, grasslands, and irrigation ditches. They will not only tolerate seasonal flooding, but also periods of drought. They prefer full sun.
A Russian olive can be a shrub or a tree, and generally grows to 30-45 feet tall once mature. It serves as a shelter and food supply for many birds. Around here, you can nearly always find pheasants in and around them.
In the spring, tiny yellow flowers with a strong scent are numerous on branches that are silvery on a young tree, or reddish brown on an older mature tree.
Late summer to early fall, the fruit will have developed. These fruit grow in drupes and can become up to 1/2 inch long, taking the shape of the better known common olive. They are yellow in color, although they have fine silvery scales giving them a silver appearance until up-close.
Fruit can be picked off shorter trees and shrubs. If you have taller trees like we do, wait for a wind storm, and then you can go pick the ends of the branches that easily fall to the ground in late fall or early winter. The berries are still attached, and they make for easy gathering.
In fact, we never plan a foraging trip for Russian olives. Instead we wait for the wind and then go collect them off the ground. All winter long, as a gentle wind storm eases, there can be found many branches loaded with fruit on the ground.
How do they taste? Very dry, and very sweet. And nutty. The outside is soft and the inside is crunchy. The first time I had one I thought to myself, Not bad, but it’s quite dry. Don’t think I’ll eat any more of those unless I have to. But that sweet, nutty aftertaste had me going back for more and more.
Once familiar with the leaves, they are easily identifiable again. The tops are a grayish-green, but often not seen due to the height of the tree. What you are likely to notice are the whitish-silvery undersides. Leaves are 2-4 inches long, and generally about 1/4 as wide as they are long. They can be curly toward a shut position later in the year, after picked, or during a season of drought.
They have a slightly rough texture to the touch.
Are there any lookalike bushes and trees?
Related species include the Silverberry, and the Buffaloberry.
What do you do with Russian olives?
Olives are not only edible and tasty, but they have some great nutritional value as well. They are high in Vitamins A, C, E, and essential fatty acids and flavonoids. If you have Russian olives in your area, these nutritional values alone are an important reason for you to become acquainted with the trees. Should you ever be in a survival situation, these will become a key ingredient in your diet.
Fruit can be eaten raw, or dried (as they are in Turkey). This means if you aren’t in a survival situation, you can also forage for and bring them home to keep in your food storage for a long time.
You can use them to cook with, or even make a beverage with them. Foraging The Rocky Mountain (see references below) even has a recipe in it to make jam with these.
Overall, this fruit is widely available well into the snowy season, is highly nutritional, and very versatile.
Brown, Liz;Foraging the Rocky Mountains : Finding, Identifying, and Preparing Edible Wild Foods in the Rockies; Globe Pequot Press; Morris Book Publishing, LLC. 2013.
Groves, Marjorie P. (Editor); Better Homes and Gardens Complete Guide to Gardening ; Meredith Corporation, 1979.
Marrone, Teresa; Rocky Mountain States Wild Berries And Fruits Field Guide Adventure Publications, Inc., 2012