Russian Olive

The landscapes in most areas look quite bare this time of year with all the leaves off the trees.  

However, I have noticed that the leaves as well as the fruits of Russian olive are still hanging on.  They are quite conspicuous even at a distance.  

Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) is not a true olive, so the common name is a bit of a misnomer.  Russian olive is a Eurasian native of the Oleaster Family (Elaeagnaceae).  North Dakota does, however, have some native members of the family, such as buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea), rabbitberry (Shepherdia canadensis), and silverberry (Elaeagnus commutata).

By the way, the commercially available olive is in Olive Family or Oleaceae.  It might surprise you, but green ash and lilac are also members of the olive family.  

Russian olive is well known for its winter hardiness, drought tolerance, and tolerance of a wide range of soils.  It was introduced to the United States in the 1800’s, and by the early 1900’s was gaining widespread use in landscaping, for hedges, soil stabilization, wildlife plantings, and the like. It was then used extensively in shelterbelts planted in North Dakota and throughout the Great Plains going back to the 1930’s.  

Russian olive has become quite successful in escaping these planting.  And when it does, it can displace more desirable native plants and plant communities.  Russian olive can now be found on a variety of habitats across the state, but most frequently lower on the landscape such as shorelines, ditches and streams, wet meadows and low prairie.  It is particularly invasive on subirrigated soils, which as the name implies, lie above a shallow water table.  

Because of its invasiveness, Russian olive is of increasing concern.  It is not listed as a noxious weed in North Dakota, but it is listed as such in Washington, Wyoming, and perhaps some other states.  Many state and national natural resource agencies are now actively eradicating the species on their lands.    And the Missouri Botanical Garden’s website notes that Midwest Invasive Plant Network has listed Russian olive as an exotic invasive species in Missouri and the Midwest.  They go on to state that it should not be planted in the Midwest.

So as you travel about, take notice of the Russian olive.  If you are observant, you will probably see more of it than you would have expected, and mostly growing on lower areas of the landscape.  And if you were considering planting some Russian olive, please find a suitable substitute.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Dakota College at Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.