An invasive species may help ward off cancer and chronic disease

Down a long winding driveway, off a wide flat-topped dirt road, just west of Mt. Pleasant, Paul Siers is farming a superfood. Kind of.

 

Unlike other farmers and orchardists, Siers never plants a thing. That’s because, legally, he can’t. The crop at Autumn Berry Farm is an invasive species. Elaeagnus umbellata, or Autumn Olive as it is most widely known, is restricted by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Siers is allowed to harvest the berries from existing shrubs, and process them into nearly anything he’d like, but he can’t propagate more of the bushes by seed or any other means. At least not on purpose.

 

It’s a technical restriction that hasn’t stopped Siers from turning out a crop however. He’s been harvesting the small red berries that grow on his property for two decades now, and 2018’s final tally weighed in among his best ever - 830 pounds of fruit.

 

Siers says the first Autumn Olive bushes on his property were already there when he built his home in 1993. Since then, he’s simply allowed them and the area wildlife to do what they do best. Today, while Siers doesn’t know for sure how many Autumn Olive bushes he has, he estimates there to be around 1000 on twenty acres.
Paul Siers harvests the berries from Autumn Olive shrubs on his farm

Greg Norwood, Invasive Species specialist with the Michigan DNR, says as long as the seeds are destroyed in the process so that they are not being dispersed and replanted by humans, both the DNR and Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development see Siers’ activities as well within the rules.

 

“Our priority is understanding the distribution of the plant, and assisting land managers with control if they want it,” says Norwood, adding that while Autumn Olive is on the DNR’s invasive species watchlist and considered restricted in the state, it’s not a high priority for the department and likely won’t be in the future.

 

That’s good news for Siers and a small but vocal group of researchers and hobbyists who are interested in the crop’s potential health benefits. It turns out the berries produced by the Autumn Olive shrub are packed with the well-known antioxidant lycopene. A naturally occurring plant pigment known as a carotenoid, lycopene is responsible for the red and pink color of fruits such as grapefruit, tomatoes, and goji berries. In humans, it has been associated with the prevention of chronic disease and as a way to ward off certain types of cancers.

Since Americans consume many more tomatoes than they do most other lycopene-containing fruits, lycopene’s health benefits have been studied most vigorously in tomatoes and tomato-based products, but Siers is enthusiastic about the potential of Autumn Olive as a dietary staple in the future. That’s because, like other superfoods that have taken root in the American home-kitchen over the years, Autumn Olive packs a nutritional punch into a small package.

 

Tests of wild-grown Autumn Olive have shown the fruit containing as much as seventeen times the lycopene per 100 grams of fruit when compared with tomatoes. And the shrub’s wide distribution and hardy nature — which sure, can also be called invasive — make it a prime candidate for producing potentially life-saving lycopene in great quantities.
Autumn Olive berries and leaves are collected in a shallow tray during harvest.

By all accounts Autumn Olive is already ubiquitous in Michigan and most of the eastern United States with some distribution in western habitats as well. The official story of its importation dates back to 1830. Native to Asia, the bushes were widely planted by the U.S. Soil Conservation Service as windbreaks and for erosion control along roads and embankments. Early on many people also considered it a valuable source of nutrition for wild life, as well as cover for small animals during the harsh Great Lakes winters. The plants, after all, grow quickly to as much as twenty-feet across and produce a bumper crop of bright red berries on year-old branches without coddling or really any management at all. The bushes thrive even in low quality soil and drought conditions that would cripple other crops. In fact, Autumn Olive is nitrogen-fixing. It adds fertility to the soil, rather than stripping it away.

 

Of course, as all things too good to be true however, a plant with so many merits is also not without its drawbacks. In this case, many of the reasons Autumn Olive was imported in the first place are now the reasons it is considered an invasive species. Its adaptability to a wide range of habitats, its ability to thrive in poor soil and adverse conditions, and its prolific reproduction through bumper berry crops, all mean Autumn Olive is really good at not only staying wherever you plant it, but spreading itself far and wide and taking over the surrounding natural habitat as well.

Norwood says the highest risk areas for Autumn Olive dispersement are old fields and other disturbed, but unmanaged areas. “Any area under agricultural management of any kind is not going to be a risk, and deep undisturbed native forests are resistant as well,” says Norwood. Instead, it’s fallow pastures and recently cultivated fields that are being returned to a more wild state that are susceptible to Autumn Olive. That’s because recent soil disturbance creates a receptive seed bed for the tiny seeds contained within each berry, and those seeds, like the Autumn Olive shrubs themselves, are resilient. After being consumed by birds and mammals who enjoy the plant’s berries, the seeds pass through the digestive tract and can be deposited even miles away in wildlife droppings.

 

This all makes sense in the context of Siers’ Autumn Berry Farm. The property was previously a pasture, making it a ripe seed bed for Autumn Olive spread. Without further research into the plant and its fruit however, it’s unclear how long the property and others like it would remain a viable Autumn Olive harvest site. Siers says the shrubs are not productive forever. Like most long-lived fruiting trees and bushes, the immature plants focus on root, stem and branch growth in the first few seasons, putting on a small crop in their third year before reaching full production around year four. Siers says after that he thinks they stop producing berries sometime between year ten and fifteen, but there is no real literature on the subject so he’s guided solely by experience. He removes old bushes to make room for birds and other wildlife to reseed new plants in their place. For now, his old pasture still proves fertile ground.

 

After harvest Siers’ berries are processed into two different jams, both labeled under the brand name Wee Bee Jammin’. They’re marketed at small shops and grocers throughout Michigan as well as online. In Mt. Pleasant they can be found at Greentree Food Co-Op and Mitchell’s Gourmet Deli & Market. South of Isabella County, they can found at Phillip’s Orchard Gatehouse Market on US-127. Currant Mist, a wine company in Coleman, is also using Siers’ berries in a new wine. Though the lycopene content of the berries is unfortunately removed through the filtering process while making the wine, Siers is quick to point out the wine is no less fun to drink as a result.

 

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