Autumn Olive
Eleagnus umbellata Thunberg

How did it get here?

Autumn Olive Range MapNative to eastern Asia, autumn olive was introduced in the United States in the 1830s. It was originally planted to reclaim disturbed areas such as strip mines, to produce food and cover for wildlife, and to provide windbreaks. Wildlife eat the fruits and disperse the seeds. The plant is still a common offering at plant nurseries and garden centers.

How to spot

Autumn Olive - USDA NRCS ArchivesElaeagnus umbellata T. is a deciduous shrub or small tree that can grow to 15 feet tall. Rounded in shape, it forms dense thickets. It leafs out in early spring before most native shrubs. The oval-shaped, pointed leaves are green and scaly on top with silvery white scales underneath.

Autumn Olive illustration by Margret MuellerThe leaves are 1 to 3 inches long and 1 to 1½ inches wide. Branches have scattered thorns. The plant flowers in April and May, bearing fragrant, light-yellow, bell-shaped blossoms that are about ½ inch in diameter. Fruits ripen in August and September and remain on the plants until late winter. The abundant reddish berries are smaller than a pea and covered with silver scales.

Habitat characteristics

  • Dry to moist, but not wet, soil. Thrives in sandy floodplains. Roots have nitrogen-fixing nodules that allow it to thrive in a wide range of soils.
  • Drought-tolerant.
  • Common in disturbed areas, including roadsides, pastures, old fields, utility rights-of-way, and forest edges.
  • Moderately shade-tolerant but does not usually grow in forests.

Life cycle

Autumn Olive berries- James R. AllisonAutumn olive reproduces by seed. It starts producing fruit at 3 to 5 years of age when it is about 4 to 8 feet tall. It bears about 30 pounds of berries annually-roughly 66,000 seeds. Shade reduces fruit production. Birds, deer, bears, and other wildlife eat the juicy berries and disperse the seed through their droppings.

Look-alikes and how to distinguish

  • Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia)-berries twice as big and very dry; also an invasive species; not yet common in North Carolina.
  • Silverthorn or thorny olive (Elaeagnus pugens Thunberg)-evergreen; flowers in late fall and produces fewer berries; also invasive species.

Why is this plant a problem?

Autumn olive displaces native plants, especially in infertile soil where its nitrogen-fixing capabilities give it an advantage over natives.

Management approaches

  • Hand-pull seedlings when the soil is moist to ensure removal of the entire root system.
  • Apply approved pesticides on larger plants. For advice and instructions, click on these links for the Virginia Native Plant Society and the U.S. Forest Service
  • Do not cut or burn, as this promotes vigorous re-sprouting and thicker growth.

Alternative, native ornamentals

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Black haw (Viburnum prunifolium)
Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa)
Shining sumac (Rhus copallina)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)
American holly (Ilex opaca)
Bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica)
Wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera)



Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s College of Natural Resources
Fact sheet

University of Georgia and partners
Fact sheet with photos

U.S. Forest Service
Description and biological profile

U.S. Forest Service
Environmental impact survey


“The Dirty Dozen, North Carolina’s Most Unwanted”
Prepared by The Nature Conservancy–North Carolina Chapter in cooperation with the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation. For a copy, call TNC-NC at 919.403.8558.


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