contributed by Sara Callaway
Elaeagnus (ill-ee-ag-nus) is what Carl called it when he showed me the plant in his back yard. “Makes good berries,” he said, picking one off and eating it. This was way before I could tell a dandelion from a daisy, back when the word “permaculture” was something chemical you did to your hair, back before I had grey hairs. I think it was the year 2004. That’s only relevant because now it’s 2015 – which means it has taken 11 years for that seed of a name and a berry that Carl planted in me to finally sprout and leaf into the light of day. 11 YEARS. Talk about slow education!
The next time this plant nosed its way into my awareness was 2011 – 7 years after that first incident. It was graduation day for Wild Intelligence, and I was walking my dad through the woods to the pavilion at Orange Twin. As we walked, this heavenly fragrance kept filling m y nose. Gosh, something sweet, luscious, intoxicating. What was it? What was it? What was blooming? I had to know, so I followed my nose. And it led me to this plant – a shrub of a thing, really, that had these miniscule little white trumpet-shaped flowers. How could such a big fragrance come from such a small flower?!? And yet, it did and it does.
In March this year, 4 years after the heavenly aroma caught my attention, I led an Intro to Coyote class, and gave nature names to each of my students. All the nature names were notable plants that we would encounter on our journey that day. Elaeagnus was one of them. When I stopped to show the plant to her namesake for the day, I waxed poetic about her blossoms, and my student asked me, “So when does it flower?” And you know, I didn’t know. “Um, sometime in the spring?” I said. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember when it had flowered that first time. But it didn’t matter, because now I had a NEED to know. Now I had a reason to pay attention. “Let’s keep an eye on it this year and find out!” I said. So I did. Everywhere I went this spring, I looked for Elaeagnus, and I looked to see if she was in bloom. The first flowers appeared in early April. More and more followed until she was in full bloom in early May. But that wasn’t all.
Now I had the answer to the flower question a new question opened up for me. When does she fruit? Another name for Elaeagnus is “autumn-olive.” Does that mean she fruits in autumn? Like, in September? Again, I needed to know. So I watched her. She lives along the side of my old driveway, so every time I took the trash and recycling to the curb (it’s romantic, I know), I would check in – are there fruits yet? Eventually, tiny green fruits appeared. And grew. And grew. And one day in July, as I stopped in to check, Eureka! Red fruits! I ate one. Tasted like a tiny tangy wild plum. As the weeks passed, the flavor grew sweeter and more berry-like with a little bit of grit like a pear has. Definitely worth eating. So I reckon that the name “autumn-olive” hails from further north of the equator than we are in Athens, Georgia. Here, Elaeagnus fruits in July. Look for her next year – shrubby like privet, silver bottoms of her leaves, heavenly flowers in May, tasty red fruits in July. Maybe your journey won’t take 11 years. But it will be worth it if it does.