The autumn olive, or elaeagnus umbellata, is a woody, deciduous shrub introduced to the United States for cultivation in 1830 where it was mostly grown as an ornamental plant. Native to East Asia where it still thrives, it shows similarity to the Russian olive shrub, except it contains wider leaves.
This medium to large shrub grows up to 20 feet tall and contains 1- to 3-inch oval leaves (dark or grayish green on top with silvery white scales underside). Small and fragrant light yellow flowers bloom in spring, and plentiful fleshy pink/red fruit with dotted scales measure less than a quarter of an inch.
The autumn olive shrub grows mostly in pastures, fields and grasslands, disturbed areas and on roadsides. However, they can also be found in open woodlands, prairies and on the edge of forests. They rarely exist in dense forests or very wet locations.
Flowers bloom and fruit flourishes annually after the shrub reaches 3 years old. Each plant produces up to 8 lbs. of fruit, and the seeds get dispersed by falling fruit, birds, and mammals such as skunks, possums and raccoons.
Best suited for USDA zones 3 through 9, the drought-tolerant autumn olive thrives in many types of soils and can withstand many moisture conditions. This fast-growing, full-sun-loving plant can also grow on bare, underlying layers of minerals due to the fixed nitrogen in its roots.
Autumn olive still grows in China and Korea and in Japan in thickets and thin woods. In the United States, autumn olive shrubs grow from Maine down to Virginia and west to Wisconsin. From the middle of the country to the East Coast, it provides food and shelter for wildlife and serves as wind breakers, screens and barriers along highways. Institutions plant the shrub to restore areas that are de-forested or otherwise disturbed.
The autumn olive threatens other nearby plant life by outgrowing and displacing them, creating heavy shade, and disrupting natural plant succession and nutrient distribution. This highly invasive shrub proves difficult to control after establishment, and burning or mowing it will only lead to vigorous re-sprouting. Cutting the shrub in combination with herbicidal application can be effective.