Invasive Species: Autumn Olive

Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is a fast-growing Asian shrub that can be found in nearly every open field in Oakland County. In fact, it has established itself throughout the Great Lake states, the Midwest, New England, and south all the way to Florida.

The shrub can grow upwards of ten feet high, and easily that much across. Its leaves are a narrow oval with a pointed tip. They grow alternately along the shrubs branches. The leaves are green, with a silvery-green underside.

The invasive autumn olive in a common habitat

It was first brought to the United States in the 1830s. The plant’s ability to fix nitrogen in its roots, gives it an advantage in infertile soil. It also makes the surrounding soil less hospitable to native plants. Additionally, it leafs out earlier in spring and stays leafy late into autumn, out-competing native species for sunlight. For well over a hundred years, the bush was used to quickly re-grow habit for wildlife. It can often be found along the interstate where it was planted to green-up ground left bare by construction.

The autumn olive is a perfect example of an invasive species that appears to create a vibrant habitat for birds and other wildlife, but is actually quite hostile for these native species. Native insects, for example, cannot eat the autumn olive’s leaves or fruit. Birds may settle for the abundant autumn olive berries—the early berries are one of the ways the shrub scatters its seeds—but the lack of available insect protein makes it harder for birds to thrive. As Douglas Tallamy writes in his book on gardening with native plants, Bringing Nature Home,

Like oriental bittersweet, the foliage of autumn olive is inedible for almost all native insect herbivores. A field rich in goldenrod, Joe-Pye weed, boneset, milkweed, black-eyed Susan, and dozens of other productive perennials supplies copious amounts of insect biomass for birds to rear their young. After it has been invaded by autumn or Russian olive, that same field is nearly sterile. (p. 88)

Like all invasive plants, the autumn olive can be challenging to remove. One effective measure is the introduction of goats. Goats will strip autumn olive bare and even eat the bark from the branches. Using herbicide is also effective. To minimize damage to other plants, people will often cut the autumn olive down and apply the herbicide directly to the stump.

If you have autumn olive on your property, there are a handful of resources to help you take control. First is the informative handout on autumn olive published by the Michigan DNR. The Oakland Phragmites & Invasive Species Task Force (OPIS) also has a few resources for you.

About Matt Forster

A native of Michigan, Matt Forster has lived in various parts of the country and written five books based on his travel and experiences—Colorado: An Explorer’s Guide, Backroads & Byways of Michigan, Best Tent Camping Michigan, Best Hikes Near Detroit and Ann Arbor, and Backroads & Byways of Ohio. Matt recently completed his Master Naturalist certification. To find out more, visit his website

Speak Your Mind