Fast-growing and tolerant of adverse conditions such as infertile soil, shade, wind, winter cold and prolonged drought, the autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) can be confused with Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia). Birds relish eating autumn olive's tiny red fruit and then deposit the seeds across the landscape, leading to a proliferation of seedlings the following year. The autumn olive successfully grows and multiplies across USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 8.
Autumn olive grows naturally in temperate-climed scrublands in southern Asia. Its native range expands from Afghanistan across the Himalayas into southern China and Japan. This deciduous shrub was introduced into North America in 1830 for use in shelter-belts, in wildlife refuges and for vegetative restoration in wasteland areas such as abandoned mines and quarries.
The long oval leaves bear a bright green top side and a silvery white underside that becomes most visible during winds. In late spring and early summer, the usually thornless branches fill with many silvery white bell-like flowers that release a sweet fragrance. Following pollination, the blossoms become small, round red berries that ripen by the autumnal equinox. The foliage drops away by the end of autumn with no ornamental coloration.
Bordering on approaching a small tree in habit, this very large shrub reaches a height of 12 to 20 feet with equal spread. Its spreading branches are open and wiry, lending an unkempt appearance, especially in winter with foliage gone. It also forms suckers, sprouting plants from its trunk base and surface roots to potentially form a small thicket.
Because the autumn olive creates suckers and thousands of seedy fruits each autumn, it is regarded as a noxious or invasive plant in many reaches of the Southeast. Birds eat the fruits and disseminate seeds all across the landscape, resulting in new shrubs in previously virgin areas. The new shrubs displace native plant species, affecting the health of the ecosystem. Prolific, widespread seeding of the autumn olive makes it particularly difficult to control or eradicate.
Traditionally, autumn olive shrubs provided cover for wildlife and livestock on the windy, infertile soils of fields and marginal lands. Planting them in expansive rows or groves acted to block winds.