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Autumn Olive, a berry high in lycopene


A UTUMN OLIVE berries are the fruit of a large shrub or small tree (Elaeagnus umbellata) with fragrant, ivory-yellow flowers, silvery-green leaves and silvery-mottled red fruit. This shrub grows wild throughout the eastern United States, from Maine to Alabama and west to Wisconsin.

Autum oliveMarion Waak Newman, a chef who writes for Flavor and Fortune, has known about autumn olive berries for years. "When the ripe fruit is picked just before the first frost, the flavor is awesome and the fruit quite juicy," she writes. "If you eat them then, the tartness will pucker your mouth, but sweetness is your reward. The flavor is reminiscent of several fruits from currants and cranberries to peaches."

This fruit, it now turns out, is crammed with nutritional value. You have to hope organic farmers and natural foods companies catch on fast.

Ingrid Fordham, a horticulturalist at US Department of Agriculture Research service, says she learned that the brilliant-red berries were edible and turned them into jams. She noticed that the red pigment settled to the bottom of her juicer and wondered if it might be one of the carotenoids, especially lycopene, the pigment that colors tomatoes red.

Fordham's colleague, Beverly Clevidence, analyzed the berries. Her analysis showed that, ounce for ounce, the typical autumn olive berry is up to 17 times higher in lycopene than the typical raw tomato (80-90 per cent of the US intake of this nutrient comes from tomatoes and tomato products).

"The red berries of autumn olive have a high carotenoid content," writes Fordham, "and particularly high levels of lycopene (30-70 mg/100g). Lycopene has powerful antioxidant properties, making it of interest for nutraceutical use."

The berries also contain high levels of vitamins A, C and E, and flavonoids and essential fatty acids. Lycopene is their main attraction, though. Lycopene, adds Clevidence, who heads ARS' Phytonutrients Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, has generated widespread interest as a possible deterrent to heart disease and cancers of the prostate, cervix and gastrointestinal tract.

US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Fruit Lab gave the fruit a new name (or an old name made new again) -- Autumnberry. They've opened an Autumnberry Research Lab. "A New Fruit for Processing: Autumnberry, Aki-gumi, or Autumn olive, they say, has "Organic Farming Possibilities." Requires little or no fertilizer. Easily harvested by hand or machine. Flavorful fruit, which can be:

  • consumed fresh
  • processed into jams, jellies and sauces
  • dried into fruit leather
  • And to top it off...An excellent source of the anti-oxidant lycopene! Rich source of carotenoids including: lycopene, phytoene, a- and ß-cryptoxanthin, and ß-carotene."

I expected to find dozens of studies about Elaeagnus umbellata in the medical literature. Not so, although 5 years ago three researchers published a study of the effects of plant flavonoids on mammalian cells: Implications for Inflammation, Heart Disease, and Cancer. "Certain plants and spices containing flavonoids," the authors note, "have been used for thousands of years in traditional Eastern medicine:

In spite of the voluminous literature available, however, Western medicine has not yet used flavonoids therapeutically, even though their safety record is exceptional..... Over 4000 structurally unique flavonoids have been identified in plant sources. Primarily recognized as the pigments responsible for the autumnal burst of hues and the many shades of yellow, orange, and red in flowers and food, the flavonoids are found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, stems, flowers, as well as tea and red wine.

In Maryland USDA has begun testing managed plantings of the shrub, both cultivated varieties and wild types, for potential commercial fruit production. Annual productivity of autumn olive ranged from 9 to 35 pounds per plant.

"Mechanical harvesting was accomplished using a commercial blueberry harvester on plants that had been appropriately pruned." they said, adding: "Productivity under low-input management and the possibility for machine harvest indicate that autumn olive may be a commercially viable crop, especially on poor-quality land that may be unsuitable for other agricultural uses."

Now for the down side. Autumn berry trees are native to Asia and were imported to North America from China, Korea and Japan in the nineteenth century. The tree was used to attract wildlife and control erosion. Public works horticulturists planted it along highway embankments and on reclaimed strip-mined land. Autum olive is tolerant of a range of environmental conditions. It has nitrogen-fixing root nodules allowing it to thrive in poor soil and drought. Seeded generously by birds, and even by foxes on surface coalmines, autumn olive, like the multiflora rose, is classified today as an invasive exotic gone feral.

Although some farmers and horticulturalists grow autumn olive as a nurse tree, which prepares the ground for black walnut trees, many consider it too invasive to let stand. It makes sturdy hedgerows and windbreaks and nourishes the soil in old fields; but in Maine its nitrogen-fixing ability is blamed for interfering "with the nitrogen cycle of native communities that may depend on infertile soils." And the large crop of fruit along highways is blamed for luring birds close to fast traffic, "contributing to high mortality rates for some species of birds" In states like West Virginia and New Hampshire, autumn olive is listed as a noxious weed.

According to USDA, "Autumn olive plants do not spread by root suckering, but can be quite persistent once established, growing back from the roots when cut down or mowed off. Due to this persistent nature, seed dispersal by wildlife, and the ability to thrive in poor soils, feral populations of autumn olive have established throughout the Eastern U.S. As a result, autumn olive is now on the federal invasive species list. However, a number of important crop species and landscape plants are similarly listed. Due to this listing, autumn olive should not be planted for fruit production where it is not already established as this could facilitate the further spread of this species." gives instructions for stamping it out with herbicides and kerosene. Picking the berries by the highway seems risky.

Tree nurseries take notice when a wild plant bears palatable fruit dense with a nutrient in high demand. Some nurseries have begun to market autumn olive saplings for premium prices with the advice that the fruit contains a "cancer-fighting chemical." A Georgia nursery says "Scientists are frantically working on the mysterious puzzles of how to increase the levels of antioxidants of fruits and vegetables. Autumn olives actually appear to suitably solve this dilemma after further study."

A freezer shelf of lycopene-rich berries sounds good to me. I would like to see this fruit (organically raised, of course) in supermarket produce sections alongside cranberries, blueberries and pomegranate juice.


Links and sources:

Autumn olive posts on FORUMS

Photo of the flowers and berries at

Autumn Olives by Marion Waak Newman: About: Fruits, Nuts, and Related Products, Flavor and Fortune, Summer Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(2).

Flavor and Fortune is dedicated to the Science and Art of Chinese Cuisine.

Plants For A Future ( is a resource center for rare and unusual plants, particularly those which have edible, medicinal or other uses. "We practice vegan-organic permaculture with emphasis on creating an ecologically sustainable environment and perennial plants." Listing (old site database) for Autumn olive under Elaeagnus umbellata. Also see new site page on Elaeagnus.

Autumnberry Research Lab is part of the Agricultural Research service of the US Department of Agriculture.

Lycopene in Autumn-Olive Berries. Plant Physiology Independent Research Project. Central Michigan University Spring 2004. John Burnett, Wendy Decaluwe, ... courses/physiology/autumn-olive/

Aaron's Bulb Farm

Dave's Garden

The Morning Sun. MT Pleasant Michigan
Shrub was an annoyance until man discovered berries' potential

Invasive Species Blogspot: Eating Autumn Olive
Why let those Autumn Olive fruits ( Elaeagnus umbellata ) go to the birds?

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last modified March 20, 2006

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