Invasion of the Autumn Olive !!
You’ve never heard of the autumn olive shrub? Possibly not, but you definitely will recognize it. Especially if you live around here in Michigan or anywhere else in the U.S. from the midwest to the eastern seaboard. Autumn olive is a nasty little invasive species plant that is rather quickly taking over natural spaces from much more worthy (and beneficial) native plant species.
I wrote about the nasty autumn olive shrub over at Green Home Landscape Source which you can check out HERE. It’s a bit of a dry, stuffy piece which is these types of things tend to be. But here, I’m going to let you know how I really feel about this pushy plant species. But if you’re too lazy to click over to my much more scientifically informative article, let me drop a little history on you regarding our little unwelcome friend.
Autumn Olive: An Unruly History
Like most (all) invasive plant and animal species, the autumn olive shrub was brought to these shores with only the best of intentions. The autumn olive plant (officially named Elaegnus Umbellata, let’s just get that out of the way and never mention it again, because nobody really calls it that.) also known as Japanese Silverberry or spreading oleaster (nobody calls it these, either.) is native to Eastern Asia. Since it’s such a hardy, quick-growing plant, somebody had the bright idea to bring it to North America way back in the 1830s for use as a way to control erosion and provide habitat and food for wildlife. In the mid-twentieth century, it began to be used in the spanking new suburbs as a landscape shrub and windbreak. All well-intentioned ideas at the time, but in hindsight all HUGE FRICKING STUPID IDEAS. What nobody anticipated is that after just a few of these harmless little plants went into the ground, they started spreading very very quickly, and they started spreading everywhere.
The Trouble with Autumn Olive
Again, like many invasive species like the kudzu plant down south, or the emerald ash borer that’s destroying ash trees everywhere, the autumn olive shrub is spreading uncontrollably. There are very good reasons for this.
First, autumn olive grows (thrives, actually) in almost every kind of soil, even very poor soil. Sand, clay, infertile…doesn’t matter. This plant can grow anywhere, and does. The autumn olive plant fixes nitrogen in its roots, allowing it to grow like a weed in nutrient-poor ground. I guess that’s kind of why it was introduced here in the first place. Have I mentioned that it’s also extremely drought resistant? It is. It’ll grow in the driest, most arid soils, no problemo.
It’s ability to grow in any type of soil isn’t the only reason it’s spreading so quickly. The autumn olive produces red berries each summer, which birds and other animals of course love to eat. The seeds are distributed very well, and wherever one of those nasty little seeds hits the ground, voila! More autumn olive shrubs. And with each shrub capable of producing over 200,000 seeds each summer, it’s pretty easy to see why this bastard shrub is like the rabbit of the plant world. Roadsides, open fields, along fence rows, in woodlands…all are being taken over by the autumn olive.
The big problem here? Because this shrub grows so well and so quickly in so many areas, it’s rapidly crowding out the native plant species that are supposed to be around here.
Why I Hate Autumn Olive
Why am I seemingly so hung up on one stupid plant species?? I’ll tell you: This time of the year, late spring/early summer, is when the autumn olive shrubs sprout their pretty little pale yellow flowers and start releasing their pollen. Now, I’ve got pretty bad seasonal allergies, as do my kids, and I’ve gotta tell you, we’ve already got our hands full dealing with just the pollens, spores, and molds of the native trees and plants around here! We don’t need any invasive species pollen adding to our misery. But do you think the autumn olive shrubs that are proliferating so wildly around here give a shit about me and my poor little sneezy allergies? They do not. They go right on ahead with their seasonal pollinating, and My God are they good at it. SO MUCH AUTUMN OLIVE POLLEN. How do I know it’s the autumn olive shrubs causing me so much misery? Easy. I can smell them. Autumn olive doesn’t go half-assed into anything, pollen production included. The pollen of the flowering autumn olive shrub is very fragrant, and very powerful. If you go outside right now and take a deep breath, you are probably smelling it. Due to the sheer numbers of shrubs around here, it’s almost over-powering to an allergy sufferer like me, and the sickly sweet smell is atrocious.
I’ve lived in my hometown my entire life, and there are entire fields that were wide open when I was younger that are now literally choked with autumn olive shrubs. It’s sad to see one unwanted invasive plant completely take over entire ecosystems so thoroughly and quickly. This picture here is a roadside near my home that’s literally crawling with autumn olive trees. Left alone, they’ll just keep on multiplying and growing (they can get as big as 20 or 30 feet tall.) And yes, I realize it’s not a great photo. What more do you people expect out of me??? Isn’t all of this rich, educational content enough??
Oh, another fun fact about the autumn olive…Its branches have sharp little thorns on its branches. These son-of-a-bitching shrubs.
What To Do About Autumn Olive
So now that they’re overrunning everything, what can we do about autumn olive? It’d be nice to think that modern science will invent a miracle chemical that’ll somehow make them all disappear, but that’s probably not gonna happen. There are so many of these shrubs, and they’re spreading so quickly, that widespread eradication isn’t likely to happen. But if you or someone you know has some of these shrubs on your property, could you do me a favor? KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT!!!
Which brings me to the last reason that this piece of crap autumn olive is taking over: It’s damn near impossible to kill it. Go out and cut a shrub down. Seriously, I want you to go cut one down. I’ll wait… You know what’s going to happen? The little autumn olive stump that’s the only thing left is going to very soon be sprouting five times more shoots than you cut down originally. It’s really quite amazing to see. Cut one branch, and watch several new ones replace it.
What about herbicides? That’s going to be your best bet. Most professionals claim this is the best way to get rid of individual autumn olive shrubs. Cut it down as close to the ground as possible, then coat that stump with an herbicide like Roundup. I know, I know, chemical plant killers aren’t cool either. But sometimes drastic times call for drastic measures. Seriously: Chemicals are really the only way to kill autumn olive once and for all. But don’t for a second think that one application is going to work, because it’s not.
Application of an herbicide is going to need to be reapplied several times, sometimes over the course of years, to make autumn olive get dead and stay that way. It’s evil stuff, and it must be dealt with in evil ways. I have read of several state natural departments recommending applications of roundup mixed with diesel fuel to autumn olive stumps. Yikes.
But the sad reality is, the autumn olive isn’t going to go away; all we can do is control it in our own little corners of the world. So please, do so. Cut it down (preferably before it starts to flower in the spring). Burn what you cut. Poison the roots. I suggest long sleeves, long pants, thick gloves, and a powerful chainsaw for maximum damage infliction. Autumn olive must be punished for what it’s doing to our precious natural areas!
Some people suggest harvesting and eating the autumn olive berries (they are safe for humans) and making the best of a dire situation. They’re said to be quite tasty and full of nutritional stuff like lycopene. If that’s your kind of thing, go for it. I’ll pass for now.
Invasive species, whether they’re in the form of plants overtaking the countryside, insects decimating millions of trees, or fish threatening entire the Great Lakes system, are very serious environmental problems. They need to be taken seriously, and research into first preventing them in the first place then finding ways to eradicate them, is critically important.
While invasive species are a huge problem that needs constant attention, it is Friday, so let’s lighten things up a bit with King Coleman and his classic ditty The Boo Boo Song. Cheers!