Common Name: Autumn Olive
Scientific name: Elaeagnus umbellata
Identification: Autumn olive is a large deciduous shrub that grows up to 20’ tall and is frequently equal in height and width. It may or may not have a central trunk. The twigs and branches are covered with small silvery to rust colored scales, and short spur twigs often have a spine at the end. Leaves alternate, are oval shaped with wavy, smooth edges, and are typically up to 3” long by 1 ¼” wide. Leaves are green on the top side and silvery green on the underside. Late spring flowers form in clusters at the junctions between leaves and twigs in mid-to-late spring, and have four petal-like sepals. Flowers are ½” long, bell-shaped, creamy in color, and fragrant. Fruits are about ¼” diameter, fleshy, and egg-shaped, and ripen to a bright pink or red color in the fall. Like the twigs, the fruits are covered with small silvery to rust colored scales.
Look-alikes: Autumn olive looks similar to the closely related and also invasive Russian olive (E. angustifolia). At maturity, autumn olive is smaller than Russian olive and is more frequently multi-stemmed and shrubby. The leaves of autumn olive are wider than those of Russian olive relative to their length. The scales on the twigs of autumn olive are often distinctly orange or rust colored, while the scales on Russian olive twigs are silver only. Finally, the fruits of autumn olive are small and pink to red in color, while the fruits of Russian olive are about twice the size at ½” in length and are yellow-brown in color. Among native species, Autumn olive is also similar to silverberry (E. commutata), but silverberry is quite rare in the Great Lakes region and is typically shorter in stature, has rounder, smaller leaves, yellow flowers and silver-green fruits. It is also similar to buffaloberry species (Shepherdia spp.), but these species have oppositely arranged twigs and leaves while autumn olive’s arrangement is alternate.
Autumn olive is common throughout the Great Lakes Basin with the exception of northern Minnesota. It is reported frequently throughout the U.S. east of the Mississippi River and north of the Florida Panhandle, and in southeastern Ontario. In a study of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions of the U.S., the Forest Service found the most frequent and most dense infestations of autumn olive in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania – places where use of autumn olive for wildlife forage, erosion control, or mine reclamation had historically been promoted (Kurtz and Hansen 2016). USDA reports autumn olive as being hardy to a minimum temperature of -23oF (Zone 4b).
Additional invasive species distribution data for specific Great Lakes jurisdictions is available from:
The seeds of autumn olive are spread over long distances by birds and wildlife, which eat the fruit.
Autumn olive invades open and forested areas, including old fields, open woods and forest edges, prairies, and savannas. It is not likely to establish in the interior of mature forests or in wetlands due to its preferences for full sun and well-drained soils.
In its favored habitats, autumn olive out-competes native shrubs and herbaceous plants by forming dense thickets. Its high rate of seed production contributes to its spread and overall invasiveness. In the densest infestations, habitat quality for ground-dwelling wildlife is greatly reduced. Autumn olive is a nitrogen fixing plant, meaning that it transforms nitrogen from the atmosphere into useable soil nitrogen. This can dramatically alter ecosystem biology and chemistry, particularly in nitrogen-poor ecosystems such as dunes, sand prairies, and black oak savannas. Ecosystems infested with autumn olive may eventually leach excess nitrogen into groundwater and, eventually, surface waters, contributing to water quality problems (Goldstein et al. 2010).
Autumn olive was introduced to North America in the early 1800’s and was historically planted as wildlife forage. It has also been used for mining reclamation projects due to its ability to grow on sleep slopes and to improve poor soils through nitrogen fixation. Today, there is a small market for autumn olive fruit as a commodity. To the extent that the plant is sold commercially, it is marketed as an edible landscape plant, not as an ornamental.
Please see our Landscape Alternatives pages for more information about how the WIGL Collaborative selected alternatives.
|Alternatives for Autumn Olive
Common name (Latin name)
|Medium to large broad crowned shrub||Silvery foliage||Good in tough locations||Winter-persistent fruit|
|Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)||✔||✔a||✔|
|Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)||✔||✔a||✔|
|Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea)||✔||✔a|
|Silverberry (Elaeagnus commutata)||✔||✔||✔||✔|
|Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
‘Winter Red,’ ‘Spriber’ BERRY NICE®
|Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)||✔||✔|
|Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica)
|Silky willow (Salix sericea)||✔||✔||✔a|
|Russet buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis)||✔||✔||✔|
|American cranberry bush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum)||✔||✔a||✔|
|Devil’s walkingstick (Aralia spinosa)||✔||✔|
|Silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea)||✔||✔||✔|
a Drier and wetter than average sites are both considered tough for planting. The checked alternatives with this footnote are adapted to wetter than average sites. The checked alternatives without the note are either broadly adaptable or prefer drier than average conditions.
b Winterberry is dioecious (male and female parts occur on different plants), and only female plants form fruit. The recommended cultivars are female, but will need to be paired with males close by to bear fruit.
Green = native to part of the Great Lakes Basin
Yellow = native to the United States but not to the Basin
The following is a brief overview of management techniques shown to be effective on autumn olive. For more detailed information on how to use these techniques, visit our Management and Control page. For local assistance managing woody invasive species, please get in touch with a cooperative invasive species management group or a university extension program.
Timing and spread concerns: Early detection is beneficial when dealing with any invasive species. Whenever possible, individual plants should be controlled before they are able to fruit in order to prevent spread. If control is undertaken after plants have fruited, it is best not to remove the plants from the site to avoid spreading seed.
Physical control: Small plants can be easily hand-pulled from moist soil; larger plants can be dug or pulled using equipment, such as a weed-wrench or shovel. Roots must be removed to prevent resprouting and suckering. Methods that involve top-killing without follow-up with herbicide (mowing, grazing, prescribed fire etc.) are unlikely to be effective as they promote extensive regrowth.
Chemical control and combined methods: Foliar treatment during the growing season may be the only practical method for large, dense infestations of autumn olive. Cut stump and basal bark treatments can be conducted throughout most of the year outside of early spring, but may be most effective during late summer into fall (Munger 2003). Herbicide should be selected carefully based on site conditions, and label directions read and followed carefully.
With any treatment it will be necessary to monitor for and treat regrowth and new seedlings in subsequent years. Autumn olive is somewhat resistant to herbicide treatments, and some portion of treated individuals may produce new growth following treatment (Munger 2003). Managers should expect treatment of dense autumn olive infestations to be a long-term commitment.
Resources on management of autumn olive:
- Goldstein CL, Williard KW, Schoonover JE, Baer SG, Gorninger JW, and JM Snyder. 2010. Soil and groundwater nitrogen response to invasion by an exotic nitrogen-fixing shrub. Journal of Environmental Quality 39(3): 1077-84.
- Kurtz, CM and MH Hansen. 2016. An assessment of autumn olive in northern U.S. forests (Research Note NRS-204). Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 1/3/2019.
- Munger, GT. 2003. Elaeagnus umbellata. In: Fire Effects Information System (Online). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory. 1/3/2019.
Header Photo: Kathy Smith, Ohio State University Extension, via bugwood.org