Welcome to the second edition of Plant of the Week! Since I wrote to you last week (which in case you missed it you can check out right here) I have accumulated quite a substantial list of exceptional plants that I feel deserve their own time in the limelight, so there certainly won’t be a lack of subject matter in the weeks and months to come! This time I’d like to draw your attention to the goumi, or cherry silverberry, Elaeagnus multiflora, a species that I have had my eye on for quite some time.
If any of you happen to live in southern Canada (or throughout the United States) then it is very likely that you have encountered at least one member of the Elaeagnus genus from Europe or Asia. These small, somewhat thorny multi-stemmed trees or large, sprawling shrubs have characteristic foliage and bear small, single-seeded fruits. The lanceolate leaves, tappered at both ends with entire margins and blunt tips, are covered in minute silvery (or rusty brown) glands on both the upper and lower surfaces.
The fruits are small ‘berries’ (botanically known as drupes) that are also covered in these characteristic dots which makes identifying these plants, at least in eastern North America, together with the rest of their qualities, quite a straightforward affair. The fruits are covered in a thin skin that surrounds an edible flesh, although the quality of the fruit varies depending on the species. The two most common introduced species are Elaeagnus angustifolia, the Russian-olive, and E. umbellata, the autumn-olive.
First of all neither of these species (nor the entire Elaeagnaceae family) are even closely related to true olives, which are in the genus Olea and the order Lamiales, while the Elaeagnus species are in the Rosales order. To put this into simpler terms, olives are more closely related to ash trees, spearmint and lilacs then the the Russian-olive or autumn-olive which are more closely related to apricots, tea roses and elm trees.*
The Russian-olive, E. angustifolia, is the largest and most characteristic of the 4 species that I will mention over the course of this article. Indigenous to southern Russia westward into regions of central Asia, this small tree often divides close to the ground into long, spreading limbs covered in thin, interweaving strips of dark brown or purplish bark. The leaves are almost entirely coated in the distinct silvery scales and quite narrow compared with other species (hence the name angustifolia) and so the whole crown of the tree in summer appears billowy and coated in silver.
The autumn olive, E. umbellata, is quite similar to the goumi (E. multiflora) which this article is supposed to have been about but has undoubtedly extended into a brief introduction into all the common members of this genus that can be found in North America. The former differs from E. multiflora in that it has smaller, nearly sessile fruit with larger ‘pits’. Both E. angustifolia and E. umbellata can be found growing wild throughout southern Ontario and the Maritimes in Canada, the fruit they produce being eagerly spread about by birds and other wildlife into open meadows, clearings, fallow fields, roadside ditches and the edges of forests.
There is also one native North American species that was present here before European colonization and the introduction of it’s relative kin. Elaeagnus commutata, known as American silverberry or wolf-berry, is a species quite similar to E. angustifolia but is often much shorter and more upright in stature with wider foliage and brown iridescent scales on the underside of the silvery foliage, similar to E. multiflora and E. umbellata but which have much greener leaves. It can be found growing throughout the far north in Canada, throughout Alaska and south into the mid-western United States.
So, after all of this, why is the goumi a plant worth knowing? All of the fruit produced by members of the Elaeaegnus genus (at least in North America) is edible and delicious, assuming it is very ripe, as unripe fruit is often harshly astringent. The fruit of E. angustifolia and E. commutata is quite floury or mealy in texture while those produced by E. umbellata and E. multiflora is much sweeter and juicer. The goumi produces not only the largest fruit of the lot but has a relatively small ‘pit’ inside each seed, the seed inside the pit’s fibrous coating also being edible but way too small to be worth extracting.
The small, cherry-like fruits of the goumi are borne on long, thin stems which makes harvesting easier then in other Elaeagnus species and they are produced in extraordinary volumes which are quite consistent in yield from year to year on the previous season’s growth. The fruit also contains substantial quantities of vitamin C, E and A, as well as flavonoids and essential fatty acids, which aren’t typically found in fruit. The ‘berries’ can be eaten fresh or puréed to make fruit leather or mashed and strained to make pies, jams or jellies and are often ready by late summer or early autumn.
The plants themselves begin bearing fruit when they are only 3-4 years old and positively thrive on neglect. They respond quite well to moderate pruning and so can be kept in check quite easily, although they could grow to about 7 or 8 feet in height with equal horizontal spread. The shrubs are multi stemmed and can form thickets if ignored entirely, although the adventitious sprouts can be dug up, severed from the main clump and planted elsewhere to establish themselves. Goumi is known to be hardy to zones 5-8 with marginal success in zone 4 (some die back likely during long winter cold snaps).
The narrow and trumpet-shaped flowers, ending in four splayed angular petals, are produced in profusion and are wonderfully fragrant, appearing shortly after the leaves begin emerging. The tubes of the flowers, young stems, winter buds and the undersides of the leaves are all covered in the distinct brown glands while the upper sides of the leaves are mostly green but with sparse silvery glands. The nectar that the flowers produce is of great benefit to a whole host of insect pollinators, including honey bees as well as native mason bees.
Lastly, E. multiflora is exceptionally tolerant of poor, nutrient deprived sites and can tolerate a wide variety of different soil conditions so long as they drain well and don’t get seasonally waterlogged. Goumi yields best in full sun but performs well in close association with other fruit bearing shrubs, in guild plantings, along fence rows, or even planting among st young orchard trees where it fills in gaps in the canopy, nourishes the topsoil with it’s foliage every autumn, attracts pollinators in early summer before eventually getting out competed once the mature trees fill in.
*My apologies for getting off track with this one, however I can’t let stuff like this slide. Looking back now to when I was first learning about these groups of plants I wish I could have had someone tell me in plain English not to confuse true olives with these superficially similar but evolutionary dissimilar plants. Your patience and understanding is greatly appreciated.