Common Name: Russian olive
Scientific name: Elaeagnus angustifolia
Identification: Russian olive is a small tree that grows up to 40’ tall and 25’ wide. The twigs are covered with small silver scales may bear sharp spines up to 2” in length. Leaves are alternately arranged, are narrow and lance shaped with wavy, smooth edges, and are typically up to 3¼” long by ¾” wide. Leaves are a silvery or grey-green on both sides. Mature bark peels in shaggy, vertical strips. Flowers form at the junctions between leaves and twigs in mid-to-late spring, and are 1/5 – 2/5” long and wide, bell-shaped and fragrant. Flowers have four petal-like sepals that are yellow on the top side and silvery on the underside. Fruits are 3/8” – ½” in diameter, dry (not fleshy), and yellow-brown in color, developing silvery scales as they ripen in the fall.
Look-alikes: Russian olive looks similar to the closely related and also invasive autumn olive (E. umbellata). The leaves of Russian olive are narrower than those of autumn olive, particularly relative to their length. The scales on the twigs of Russian olive are silver, while the scales on autumn olive are frequently silver and rust colored. Finally, the fruits of these species are distinctly different. The fruits of Russian olive are yellow-brown with silver scales, while the fruits of autumn olive are about half the size at ¼” in diameter and ripen to pink or red with silver and rust colored scales.
Russian olive is occasional throughout the Great Lakes region. It is most frequently reported near Toronto, Ontario. It is much less frequently reported than the closely related autumn olive. On a continental scale, Russian olive is most prevalent west of the Mississippi River.
Additional invasive species distribution data for specific Great Lakes jurisdictions is available from:
- Midwest Invasive Species Information Network (Michigan)
- iMapInvasives (New York and Pennsylvania)
- EDDMapS Ontario
The seeds of Russian olive are spread over long distances by birds and wildlife, which eat the fruit. When occurring in riparian areas, it is also likely that seeds are transported in floodwaters (Zouhar 2005). In situations where Russian olive is shallowly rooted, any damage to the main trunk can result in extensive production of sprouts both from the root crown and the entire root system (Worwood et al. 2019).
Russian olive invades mostly open and riparian areas, including prairies, savannas and streambanks.
In its favored habitats, Russian olive out-competes native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants by forming dense thickets. Russian olive may alter hydrology and streamflow through its water uptake in riparian areas, though this is likely of greater concern in drier western climates (Nagler et al. 2009). Russian olive is a nitrogen fixing plant, meaning that it transforms nitrogen from the atmosphere into useable soil nitrogen. This can dramatically alter ecosystem chemistry, particularly in riparian systems (Shah et al. 2010).
Russian olive used to be widely planted as wildlife forage, as a windbreak, and for erosion control in the Western U.S. in the Great Plains region before its invasive traits were well understood (Zouhar 2005). Today, there is a small market for Russian olive as an ornamental plant that will grow in even the most difficult conditions (Dirr and Warren 2019).
Please see our Landscape Alternatives pages for more information about how the WIGL Collaborative selected alternatives.
|Alternatives for Russian Olive
Common name (Latin name)
(15 – 30’ tall)
|River birch (Betula nigra)||✔|
|Silverberry (Elaeagnus commutata)||✔||✔||✔|
|Russet buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis)||✔||✔|
|Devil’s walkingstick (Aralia spinosa)||✔||✔|
|Silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea)||✔||✔||✔|
|Hybrid crabapple (Malus x.)
‘Hargozam’ HARVEST GOLD
|Rosemary willow (Salix elaeagnos)||✔||✔||✔a|
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.
Green = native to part of the Great Lakes Basin
Yellow = native to the United States but not to the Basin
Blue = not native but not invasive
The WIGL Collaborative’s decision trees are designed to help site users, who are perhaps newly discovering that plants that are part of their home landscaping are invasive, prioritize which species should be removed first based on risk to the surrounding environment, economy, and occasionally, to human health. In a perfect world, everybody would remove all invasive plants from their landscaping right away, but in reality, removing mature woody plants involve a hefty investment of time and/or money. These diagrams can help people with multiple woody invasives in their landscaping prioritize to get the most benefit for their efforts.
To learn more about the methodology and information used to develop the decision trees and for helpful hints on how to answer the questions, please see the full report here (PDF).
The following is a brief overview of management techniques shown to be effective on Russian 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, though incomplete removal of the roots and any activity that exposes roots or brings them close to the soil surface is likely to produce a suckering response. The root crown must be removed to prevent regrowth from the crown, and shallow lateral roots much either be removed or burried to a depth of 3″ to prevent suckering from those roots (Worwood et al. 2019). Methods that involve top-killing without follow-up with herbicide (mowing, grazing, prescribed fire etc.) are unlikely to be effective long-term as they promote extensive regrowth in Russian olive.
Chemical control and combined methods: Foliar application of herbicide during the growing season can be effective, but must be undertaken with great care in riparian areas. Cut stump treatment, stem injection, and basal bark herbicide treatment can be applied most of the year (avoiding early spring). 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. Russian olive is prone to re-establish on disturbed streambanks where the lack of natural hydrology prevents the growth of many native species (Zouhar 2005).
Resources on management of Russian olive:
- Dirr, MA and KS Warren. 2019. Elaeagnus angustifolia In: The Tree Book: Superior Selections for Landscapes, Streetscapes, and Gardens. Portland, OR: Timber Press. 335.
- Nagler, PL, Shafroth, PB, LaBaugh, JW, Snyder, KA, Scott, RL, Merritt, DM, and J Osterberg. 2009. The potential for water savings through the control of saltcedar and Russian olive. In: Saltcedar and Russian Olive Control Demonstration Act Science Assessment. Reston, VA: U.S. Geological Survey. 1/3/2019.
- Shah JJF, Harner MJ, and TM Tibbets. 2010. Elaeagnus angustifolia elevates soil inorganic nitrogen pools in riparian ecosystems. Ecosystems 13(1): 46-61.
- Worwood, D, Patterson, R and S Price. 2019. Factsheet: Minimizing regrowth when removing Russian olive – points to consider. Utah State University Extension.
- Zouhar, K. 2005. Elaeagnus angustifolia. 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: John Randall, The Nature Conservancy, via bugwood.org