Our government is not exempt from bad ideas. It’s made up of humans, after all, though they’re humans who have more power than you or I do in carrying out those bad ideas.
As a result, when the government encouraged us to plant multiflora roses as “living fences” and provided help in doing so, a bad idea became an invasive nightmare. Birds eat the little red rose hips, digest the good part, and poop the seeds in places where people do not want fences, living or otherwise.
When the powers-that-be decided that turning Asian ladybugs loose might be a good idea, it was not until there was no turning back that we all discovered that it wasn’t a good idea at all.
The government and others, mostly others this time, decided some decades ago that wildlife would benefit from the introduction of an Asian shrub called autumn olive, which it was thought would also be good for erosion control.
The autumn olive is all over the place now, and like the other invasive species, it makes survival difficult for native flora and fauna. As with the multiflora rose, its berries get eaten by birds, with the seeds getting similarly distributed. Ask farmers what they think of the autumn olive.
But there is an upside to the autumn olive. It’s not much of a blessing so far, but it’s more than nothing.
You’ve heard the affirmation, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” We’re not overwhelmed with lemons, but we have an abundance of autumn olives and their berries. And we have an abundance of people making their living from things that grow locally but that aren’t traditional crops.
My personal favorite of these is what is known as the black walnut now, though when I was growing up it was the plain old walnut and what are marketed as walnuts now were called the English walnut. Anyway, we have a lot of them. Their meat is hard to extract, but it’s worth it. In flavor and richness, it blows away the English walnut.
We have hickory nuts, which I wasn’t going to mention because tasty though they are (a fellow named Euell Gibbons used to appear on television likening their flavor to that of Post Grape Nuts cereal), it is really, really hard to get the good part out of the pebble-like nuts, unless you’re a chipmunk.
But Chris Chmiel, county commissioner and head of Integration Acres, which deals in all kinds of locally grown foodstuffs, tells me he’s working with a fellow from Wisconsin who has found a way to make harvesting hickory nuts worthwhile. Maybe he has a chipmunk ranch.
Chris is the master of extracting the good stuff from what grows locally. He handles walnuts, spicebush berries, and, most famously, pawpaws. It’s a growing operation in all senses of the word.
“Integration Acres purchased more spicebush berries, persimmons and hickories this year than ever before,” he told me in an email message Friday. “This is besides the regular large quantities of pawpaws and black walnuts. Pawpaws were so plentiful this year that we had to stop purchasing due to limitations of frozen storage.”
I’d forgotten persimmons. They’re wonderful – when they’re ripe, which in the wild usually means after the first frost. One of the most vivid memories from my vivid childhood, speaking of bad ideas, is the time I bit into one that wasn’t quite ripe, in hope of slaking my thirst.
All these things, walnuts, hickory nuts, pawpaws, spicebush berries and persimmons, are native. Autumn olive isn’t.
In the course of doing some research on them, though, I learned that autumn olives might join the native vegetation in being useful, and inasmuch as we’re stuck with them, that might mean an opportunity for some enterprising local folk.
(There’s a problem with the plant’s common name. There’s nothing especially autumnal about it, and it does not produce olives nor is it related to the olive tree.)
But it does produce fruit and as it turns out, it might be very good fruit. It’s a red berry with silvery splotches. Some people eat them straight, but they’re very sour.
If you poke around, you’ll find all kinds of recipes for jams, jellies, salsas and so on made from autumn olive berries. They can even substitute for tomatoes in some dishes. They’re as useful as the fruits of any of our native species.
What’s more, it turns out that the berries are uncommonly good for you. They have loads of lycopene, the most important nutrient in tomatoes. They have plenty of vitamins, antioxidants, carotenoids and other good things.
As anyone who has a once-cleared field that was left alone for a year can tell you, they are not difficult to cultivate. The problem hasn’t been getting them to grow; it’s been getting them not to grow.
So it seems autumn olives are a business waiting to be built. I asked the people I know, such as Chris, who would be aware if anybody around here is making products from autumn olive berries.
“I don’t know anyone currently doing anything on a commercial scale with autumn olives locally,” Chris said. “I think it is a good idea and do believe some folks may be doing something somewhere.”
Maureen Burns-Hooker, the area’s famous “Tea Lady,” replied similarly. “Not really,” she said, “although it’s a great idea. They are soooooo small though!!”
Still, if there’s a way to profitably harvest the good stuff from hickory nuts, there’s a way to do anything. And the plant biologists at OU have come up with a blight-resistant chestnut tree – which is wonderful – so breeding up a batch of autumn olives with bigger berries ought to be a cinch.
Thinking about all this, I set out in the rain Friday afternoon to inspect the autumn olive bushes on my property that I haven’t chopped down.
But I couldn’t get there because of the multiflora roses.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.