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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

R is for Russian Olive

Former player and now announcer for the New York Mets Keith Hernandez was once asked what he did that weekend. He responded that he had weeded his yard of quite a few unwanted Russian Olive seedlings. After enduring considerable ribbing from his fellow announcers who thought him rather silly for doing his own yard work when he could afford a fleet of gardeners he replied, “Where’s the fun in that?”

Now, what is to be gleaned from this is:
#1- You have to love the guy if only because he likes to garden perhaps as much as you do.
#2- Even the rich and famous have their fair share of weeds.
#3- Russian Olive must be an invasive plant.

According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service  it is exactly that. There are only a scant few states in which it is not considered  “run amok” those being in the lower southeastern part of the United States. This is because the Russian Olive is only hampered  by hot, humid summers and mild winter regions. It, however, can take any other punishment Mother Nature wants to dish out. It can take the bitterest, coldest winters, poor soil, blazing sun and even drought. No doubt this is what makes it a “noxious weed” or “potentially invasive” in many areas.

Of course, one gardener’s “invasive” is another’s  “can’t live without it”. Such is the case with me and my lovely Russian Olive which I wouldn’t part with for all the world. It behaves rather nicely in my very own Arboretum. If you would like to talk invasive plants, however, I’ve an Ash tree, a massive Honeysuckle hedge and several Burning bushes that would surely qualify. But that is a tale for another time.

Botanically speaking the Russian Olive is known as Elaeagnus angustifolia. As any student of botany can tell you the name implies this small, deciduous, multi-stemmed tree or tall shrub  is elegant in appearance and willowy with slender foliage. This foliage is 2 inches long with a pale greenish gray hue. The underside is almost a silvery white. It also has its own built-in defense system in the shape of haphazardly spaced 1-2 inch long and very sharp thorns. A hedge of Russian Olive would keep just about any intruder out or leave him cut up but good if he attempted to run through it.

This fact doesn’t bother the birds who like to nest in large stands of Russian Olive bushes where they know they will be safe. Song birds also love to nibble on the tiny, sweet olive-like fruits which develop come mid-late summer. In spring along with Bradford Pears and Forsythia it bursts into bloom with a trillion tiny, rather insignificant but highly fragrant pale yellow or creamy white blooms. The perfume can be noticed from miles around. In fact, the highways where these grow in abundance never smell better than when these are blooming.

The Russian Olive can grow to 20 feet high but can be easily maintained smaller. It is apt to grow as a tree in the more dry, barren regions dropping some lower branches in an effort no doubt to conserve water but where moisture is plentiful it reverts to the shrub state unless the learned gardener does some artful pruning to keep a multi-stemmed tree form.

The Russian Olive makes a great specimen plant in the lawn which also serves to keep its invasive nature at bay. As a shrub it would make an excellent tall background, perfect for organic fencing, to define and separate garden rooms and as a sound and wind barrier when planted along noisy roadsides. It can even replace the ugly snow fence and its invasive nature could be put to good use in preventing erosion on steep banks and to soak up water in low-lying areas.

Is there anyone that can say this easy-going, virtually carefree, wildlife enticing, environmentally valuable and versatile plant isn’t a boon to almost any landscape? Possibly Keith Hernandez.  As for me I’d be more than happy  to trade some Ash tree saplings, baby Burning Bushes and little Honeysuckle shrubs in return for a few Russian Olive seedlings. If you see Keith Hernandez tell him for me.


  1. The Russian Olive is gorgeous (yours, that is). I'm not very familiar with it - but, I think like you do - I plant what I like and love, and if something volunteers in my garden - if I like it, then it's a keeper. I've got a honeysuckle that has become a bully, along with trumpet vine, Queen Anne's Lace and some other things many folks hate. Just depends on what makes you feel good.

  2. Exactly, Stacey. Whatever makes you happy in the garden you should keep.


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