If you think you need a meal plan to eat on campus, then you forget that there’s a fresh market in our very own backyard. The Nature Preserve is a luscious area for finding wholesome foods. A bit of curiosity and a dash of faith allow foragers to experience the land behind the Brain in a novel way. Foraging amateurs can rejoice; the autumn olive bush is an excellent introduction to nature’s noshes.
These bountiful bushes are a land manager’s nightmare but a forager’s delight. Each year, the bushes gush an endless number of berries into the Nature Preserve. The plump, tart berries can be found throughout the preserve and are currently at their peak ripeness, earning them excellent candidacy for recipes or snacks.
Autumn olive is a species native to Asia. In the 1800s, the plant was taken to the U.S. for erosion control, soil improvement, aesthetic appeal and food. The bush’s resilience in poor soils, however, allowed it to filtrate through North American ecosystems. In the Nature Preserve, dozens of autumn olive bushes can be found along the edges of trails where there is lots of sunlight.
The bright red autumn berries are distinguished by their gold-flecked markings. They are roughly pea-sized and grow in copious clusters all up the branches. The bush’s thumb-sized leaves can best be distinguished by their green tops, silver undersides and smooth edges. Only eat what you can positively identify, otherwise you’ll be running out of the preserve straight to your dorm bathroom. You’ve been warned.
You can put a pail beneath berry branches to collect them more easily and in large amounts. The riper the berries, the easier it is to part them from their stems. On campus, there are many bushes that are still brimming with fruit. It only takes a few moments to gather gallons of berries.
Don’t be tempted to eat all of your harvest, though — the berries are a unique asset to fall cuisine. The berries and seeds can be separated by simmering every four cups of berries with half a cup of water. Then use a sieve to separate seeds and pulp. Autumn berry pulp can be used diversely for autumnal recipes.
The tart berries can be sweetened with honey, maple syrup, brown sugar or agave nectar. Add a bit of sweetener with Sure-Jell, a jellifying product. Mix this concoction with the berry pulp and more sweetener. Place over low heat until thick. After cooling, the berry brew jam is ready to be canned. A few tasty add-ins include cinnamon, mint leaves, orange rind or a kick of cayenne pepper.
The berry pulp can be used as a filler on its own, or you could combine it with other mild, sweet berries. A little flour can be added to thicken the pulp. Pie crusts made from walnuts or pecans are an excellent autumnal complement. Place the puree in the crust and bake. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 50 minutes.
3. Fruit Leather
If the berries are too tart for your taste, feel free to add a sweetener. Lay the puree on a pan separated by a sheet of parchment paper. Bake for 10-12 hours at 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Cool and enjoy!
There are about 200 full-grown autumn olive bushes in the preserve and hundreds of smaller ones. There are some bushes along the Marsh trail, but those are mostly picked through. For some bountiful bushes, look along the Field trail. There are also a few hefty bushes on the backside of Newing College.
Dylan Horvath, the steward of the Nature Preserve, has allowed the ones along the Marsh trail to grow in a bit because both beavers and people are taking a liking to them.
As long as Friends of the Nature Preserve, a student volunteer group, continues to manage the growth of autumn olives and creatures continue to eat the berries, the bush’s invasiveness will stay in check.
You can change your landscape, you can change your diet, but you cannot change the palatability of the autumn olive berry. The silver lining to this ecological tragedy is that the berries are too delicious to go to waste.