Autumn olive
Invasive autumn olive Invasive autumn olive © Paul Rothrock

Stories in Indiana

Journey with Nature: Autumn Olive

Good intentions gone bad

What a perfect way to describe the spreading of the invasive autumn olive throughout Indiana. Once thought as the best way to control erosion and provide wildlife habitat, it is now a major hassle. 

The Invasive Autumn Olive

Autumn olive is a deciduous shrub that can grow as tall as 20 feet. Its cream to pale yellow flowers bloom in early spring and bring on an abundance of pink to red berries dotted with scales. The leaves of the plant are elliptically shaped with a slightly wavy margin. It is distinguished from other similar shrubs by the silvery scales found on the lower leaf surface. Although beautiful and fragrant, autumn olive’s aggressive proliferation negatively affects natural areas throughout Indiana.

The autumn olive is a native plant of China, Japan and Korea that made its way to the United States in 1830. In the 1950s it was widely promoted as a great way to provide wildlife habitat and erosion control in environmentally disturbed areas. Although it did make available habitat and food for wildlife, it soon became a major problem as autumn olive began to rapidly spread throughout the state. To make matters worse, attempts to remove the shrub by cutting and/or burning created even more autumn olive.

The Problem with Autumn Olive

Autumn olive is an invasive species that out-competes and displaces native plants by creating a dense shade that hinders the growth of plants that need lots of sun. It can produce up to 200,000 seeds each year, and can spread over a variety of habitats as its nitrogen-fixing root nodules allows the plant to grow in even the most unfavorable soils. Not to mention that it reproduces quickly and with little effort at all.

Birds are quite attracted to the seeds, and will scatter them throughout pastures, along roadsides and near fences. Even attempting to remove autumn olive by cutting or burning from your property can cause unwanted spreading as the shrub germinates easily.

What You Should Do About It

According to The Nature Conservancy, autumn olive is quickly becoming one of the most troublesome shrubs in central and eastern United States. High seed production, high germination rates and the sheer hardiness of the plant allows it to grow rapidly. Indiana’s Invasive Plant Species Assessment Work Group (IPSAWG) has found that hand pulling autumn olive seedlings is an effective way to rid yourself of the plant. In fact, control efforts before fruiting will prevent the spread of seeds. If the plant is too big to pull, herbicides will be necessary to eradicate the plant from the general area of invasion. You will need to cut and apply herbicide to the trunk repeatedly, from summer through winter. Please make sure to read and follow the directions on the herbicide label precisely. . 

Although it is not illegal to sell or buy autumn olive in Indiana, it is recommended that Hoosiers do not sell, buy or plant autumn olive, and to remove the invasive from your property. Remember - cutting and burning alone will not get rid of autumn olive, but will only create more. You can also help by continuously being on the lookout for this pesky invasive species during hikes or walks through the neighborhood.  If you spot one, make sure to Report IN.  This technology helps us track and contain the spread of autumn olive and other invasive species.

Autumn Olive Alternatives

It has been recommended that autumn olive should not be planted in Indiana. IPSAWG suggests planting these native plants instead:

Blackhaw - Viburnum prunifolium
Black Chokeberry - Photinia melanocarpa
Dogwoods - Cornus sericea, C. amomum, C. racemosa
Northern Arrowwood - Viburnum dentatum
Serviceberry - Amelanchier arborea
Winterberry - Ilex verticillata

For More Information

USDA - National Invasive Species Information Center - Autumn Olive

Autumn Olive Quick Facts

  • Scientific Name: Elaeagnus umbellata
  • Type: deciduous, either shrub or tree
  • Size: up to 20 feet tall & 30 feet wide
  • Stems: silvery or golden brown; speckled; often with thorns
  • Leaves: grayish green with silvery scales on bottom side; has a shimmery look to it
  • Flowers: in clusters; bell-shaped, cream to light yellow petals; fragrant; bloom in April -June
  • Fruits: fleshy, silvery with brown scales to a speckled red when matured; edible to both animals and humans
  • Reproduction: by seed or propagation by stump sprouting and/or roots
  • Habitat: forests edges, meadows, open woods, pastures, riverbanks, roadsides, streams and disturbed areas
  • Impacts: invasive specie; increases nitrogen levels in soil; possibly beneficial to black walnut
  • Similar Native Species: Silver-berry; however, not native to Indiana

Information found on the USDA’s Invasive Plants Filed and Reference Guide