Lessons from Autumn Olive

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear” ~Unknown

Pay attention. Follow the small quiet voice. Ask Questions. Remain open and curious. What you seek is likely closer than you think, and this is the medicine. The medicine has always been right here.

Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is an invasive wild edible that is prolific all over the eastern United States. It was introduced in the mid-1800’s as an ornamental shrub, and it has been used in landscaping to help prevent erosion and to serve as a windbreak. It is most often found growing wild on the edges of things (much like Elder)… along roadsides, and where fields meet forest. Autumn Olive berries are said to have as much as 18 times the lycopene as tomatoes, and the seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids. The berries are also high in tannins which makes them astringent. The tannin content diminishes after the first frost–or you can harvest the berries easier in the season and freeze them to mimic a natural frost.

I first learned of Autumn Olive a few years back from a friend who would harvest an abundance and make herself fruit leathers. “How cool,” I thought… “I want to find my own source and try this too!”

Around the same time I moved to a more rural property. All over the edges, and all over the park next door, were these large shrubs. A plant-savvy neighbor said that they were Russian Olives, terribly invasive, and to be gotten rid of. “Russian Olive,” I thought. “Might that be another name for Autumn Olive?”

I did a little research, and no, Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) is not another name for Autumn Olive. Similar plant, but not the same. Autumn Olives produce mottled red berries in the fall that are juicy and tasty, while Russian Olives produce green berries that are mealy and not what one would want to eat. “Too bad” I thought.

But something kept nagging at me. “Are these Russian Olives? I have never noticed any berries at all.”

Fast forward a few years later to just a couple of months ago. I was walking in said park by the house where I live and I saw a few mottled red berries on these so-called Russian Olives. “Wait, what?” I thought. I went home and did more digging. I was reminded that it is the Autumn Olives that produce these mottled red berries, Russian Olives produce mealy green berries. I found several credible online resources about how to identify Autumn Olive and they all seemed to confirm what I had found. I sent photos to two knowledgeable plant friends, both of whom also confirmed what I found. At that point I was 99.9% sure of the plant’s identity and so decided to try eating a berry–always a little intimidated the first time I try a new wild food–to make sure it tasted the way it had been described to me, and indeed it tasted like a tart, astringent, pomegranate. (As an aside, please don’t ever eat wild food until you have made a positive ID using at least three different credible sources. Plant ID apps don’t count!)

“YES, I found Autumn Olive! And they have been here this whole time!”

Elaeagnus umbellata, Autumn Olive. Photo: Leela Ehrhart

Not only have they been in the spot in the park where I initially found berries, upon further investigation I discovered Autumn Olive shrubs are all over the edges of the park… loads of shrubs with juicy red berries! And as it turns out… they are also on the property where I live… where I have lived for years! They have been here this whole time, I just didn’t know it.

Why didn’t I know it?

Well… for one thing I simply took someone else’s word for what they were and I didn’t really bother to investigate much further than that. I assumed their expertise because I knew they were plant people, and I didn’t look much further. And because I took someone else’s word, I stopped paying attention to the plants themselves. I turned away from curiosity. Even though there was a subtle tugging in my gut–that question surfacing from time to time of whether the shrubs actually were Russian Olives or not–I pushed it aside and looked no further. And so I missed who these plants really were until now.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does any of this apply in the rest of life? For me the answer is a resounding “YES” to both.

So what are the lessons Autumn Olive so gracefully and kindly reminded me about?

Pay attention. Had I been paying closer attention I surely would have noticed those red berries during some past late summer/early fall season. Follow the small quiet voice. Those with more expertise than us about certain things are amazing. They also don’t know everything, and sometimes they make mistakes. I had the nagging question about what the shrubs were. I could have dug deeper and looked further, sooner, had I listened to that little voice within myself. Ask questions. How do I (or you) know for sure these are Russian Olives? How do I (or you) know for sure that fill-in-the-blank? Remain open and curious. Had I not assumed I knew what the shrubs were I would probably have been more observant and open to input from them directly–yes, plants themselves communicate with us in their way when we are open. Everything else does too. What you seek is closer than you think, and this is the medicine. And there is it… the most profound lesson of all, the lesson that I keep learning over and over again, the lesson that brings me home to myself. It is so common in the disconnection of our modern times to think that we must search far and wide for that which we seek. We forget to return to ourselves and to our internal knowing. We forget to notice what is already right here. We forget that we can open ourselves to the abundance that surrounds us (because there is abundance when we bother to notice). Seeking and searching are important but they must be balanced with a grounding in the present, in the here and now. The medicine both reveals itself by, and is inherent in, returning to ourselves and to what is already right here, within and without.

I wasn’t ready for Autumn Olive until I was. I wasn’t ready for fill-in-the-blank until I was. And when we are ready, what we seek has a way of appearing time and time again.

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