3 Herb Mamas

Wednesday’s Weeds: ASIAN BUSH HONEYSUCKLE & AUTUMN OLIVE

on July 2, 2014

Today’s blog post is somewhat of a two-for-one special. I will write about two plants in response to the many questions I get every summer starting around this time. There is a lot of confusion about the prolific red berried plants showing up now and continuing through the summer into fall. Some say it’s toxic and some say it’s delicious. In a sense, both are correct because there are actually two plants that are frequently confused. Both have shiny red berries, both have similarly shaped smooth-edged leaves, but there are easy to spot differences that can help in identification.

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Asian Bush Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii and other L. spp.)

This plant is fruiting all over our property and in our area right now and birds will be distributing their seeds through droppings all summer. It is considered invasive and is mildly toxic to humans. It was planted extensively in the 1950’s as part of an erosion prevention program as highway systems expanded into our state as well as others. It was also heavily promoted as an ornamental for home gardens and landscaping. I have known of one case personally of a young child consuming an unknown, but likely a large, quantity and experiencing symptoms consistent with poisoning. The child’s mother called me for identification purposes and then called the Center for Disease Control to confirm toxicity, which they did. Since her child was vomiting and experiencing diarrhea they directed her to not go to the hospital to have her stomach pumped since she was already purging but to monitor her temperature and for signs of dehydration. Thankfully, the child was completely recovered within 24 hours. Although the flowers are considered edible the berries are not. To be clear: THESE BERRIES ARE TOXIC TO HUMANS AND SHOULD NOT BE EATEN!

On the other hand, Autumn Olive berries are not only edible but delicious and nutritious. Read on to learn the important identification differences.

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AUTUMN OLIVE (Elaeagnus umbellate)*

In late summer and early autumn this plant will produce lots of juicy red berries that are tart and sweet. Originally brought to the United States in the 1800’s for useful purposes, it has escaped into the wild and established itself.

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AUTUMN OLIVE*

Note the silvery backs of the leaves and the speckled scales covering the berries. These are identifying characteristics.

Although the fruiting times for these two plants overlaps some and they both have red berries and similar (although not identical) leaves there are simple ways to identify positively and you can practice applying botanical terminology in the field. Asian Bush Honeysuckle has opposite and entire leaves. Opposite leaves means that for every leaf that appears along the stem there is another leaf exactly opposite it. Entire leaves  are ones that are smooth along the edges rather than toothed or lobed. Here is a graphic to help differentiate the various types of leaf margins:

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The leaves on Autumn Olive are alternate and entire. Alternate leaves are arranged along the stem in a staggered or alternate pattern. This is known as the leaf arrangement and here is another graphic to help note the differences:

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Using appropriate botanical terminology assists tremendously in accurate identification. Although I get many phone calls and e-mails asking me to identify a “real green plant that’s pretty big with medium sized leaves” obviously it is not possible to do so. Practicing using these terms along with a field guide or key is a self-teaching tool that will serve you for a life time. Stepping off soap box now and getting back to a wonderful wild edible…

Additionally, the leaves on Autumn Olives are notably silvery, whereas they are not on Asian Bush Honeysuckle. Although both species are considered invasives, Autumn Olive is highly beneficial to humans in many ways if we chose to avail ourselves of them. One of my main references (and favorite resources) for information on Autumn Olive is INVASIVE PLANT MEDICINE: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives by Timothy Lee Scott. Scott says that it is, “…full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and anti-cancer components, the fruits of this tree are a deeply nourishing, plentiful food source…is a most appropriate addition to supportive chelation therapy [therapy to remove heavy metals, such as lead, from the body]…In addition, Elaeagnus berry is strongly active against many pathogenic influences, including cancer and many multi-drug resistant strains of microorganisms.” Scott is always thorough and exhaustive in his research and provides the scientific study references for these claims. I will happily send anyone interested a photocopy of the list of references upon request. Or better yet, invest in this fabulous book and read about this potent healing plant along with others. My favorite quote from his book in regard to Elaeagnus is this:

“[this plant] in the landscape sends us messages of renewal and strength to continue on in a devastated world. The tree’s presence rejuvenates soil with its nitrogen-fixing capability, and it nourishes wildlife with abundant fruit. There may come a time when humans will be thankful for Elaeagnus, the sacred olive tree [which is what Elaeagnus means in Greek], and its widespread presence on our lands. Then the tree will be recognized, just as it was in ancient times, as a healer of disease and restorer of health, lifting the spirit with the sweet fruit it provides.” 

The non-edible berries of Asian Bush Honeysuckle are bright red, smooth and semi-translucent. They contain numerous small seeds. The edible berries of Autumn Olive, which will appear in late summer or early fall, are speckled with whitish scales and contain only one seed. These berries can be made into syrups, jam, or butters.

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Autumn Olive Butter sweetened with a little local honey and a touch of low-sweetener pectin.*

*Photo credit for all Autumn Olive plant and Autumn Olive Butter photos: Andrea Koutras Lay of Hidden Hollow Farm

May your summer be abundantly botanical! ~Leenie


4 responses to “Wednesday’s Weeds: ASIAN BUSH HONEYSUCKLE & AUTUMN OLIVE

  1. Helen says:

    Where is the recipe for the butter? It looks delicious.

  2. Here’s a recipe http://wildblessings.com/autumn-olive-berry-jam/ I used local honey, not sugar, and didn’t can mine since I only made a few jars and they didn’t last long!

  3. Andrea says:

    Thank you. I found these lucious little berries on a walk. Glad I could eat it.

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