The Blue Ridge Naturalist: This Bud’s for You

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Gray Squirrels and several species of birds visit my Autumn Olive plants in spring to feed on the nutritious flower and leaf buds. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

This past April, as Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata) shrubs were abundantly blooming around Albemarle County and Charlottesville, the ones in my yard were looking almost lifeless. They were lucky if they sported a few leaves, and there was nary a bloom in sight. The butterflies, bees, and I were sorely disappointed by this turn of events.

I always look forward to the early-spring blooms of Autumn Olive shrubs. I absolutely adore the fragrance of the flowers on these plants, which normally perfume my entire yard. It also delights me to see how much the blossoms help to feed the many species of butterflies and bees out looking for nectar sources.

Yet I was not surprised, nor did I wonder why, my shrubs were not blooming as they usually do. After all, I am always documenting the wildlife activity that takes place daily in my yard, and the explanation for my barren shrubs could be found there.

For the first time that I can remember in the three decades-plus that I have lived here, one or more of the Gray Squirrels that share my property had visited my plants almost daily since the buds had swelled. They had eaten virtually every leaf—and then flower—bud. I was recording their bud-binging activity in my wildlife-food notebook far more often than I had ever done before!

It is not unusual for squirrels—and birds—to eat flower and leaf buds during late winter to early spring (depending on when the buds swell, or start their growing process, due to warming temperatures). I have observed White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Northern Cardinals, Pine Siskins, and American Goldfinches heartily eating the buds of Autumn Olive.

Following bud break, when leaves or flowers start to emerge and are quite small, birds and squirrels feed on them as well. Usually they lose interest once the leaves and flowers that had escaped their notice have managed to grow bigger than the animals apparently like. Thus I do not see them in the Autumn Olive shrubs again until another year has passed. This year, however, the birds lost interest, as is typical, but for some unknown reason, one or more squirrels did not.

The hardest time of the year for squirrels to find food is early spring when new seeds have not yet developed on most kinds of plants, and seeds from the previous fall are almost gone. However, I would not have thought these medium-sized rodents would have had much of a problem this year as there was plenty of food around for them. They inhabit The Nature-friendly Garden, after all!

Additionally, they should not have had much trouble getting enough to eat because there were not a lot of squirrels around to compete with each other for food. In the fall of 2013, we had a hard mast (acorn crop) failure. The lack of those nutritious nuts hit White-tailed Deer and Gray Squirrel populations hard. These mammals could not quickly move away to other areas, as another acorn-dependent animal, the Blue Jay, had done.

When we then had a severely cold February in 2014, many of these mammals died of starvation. February of 2015 repeated this same scenario, with a cold, wet spring compounding the difficulty for these animals to find enough food to survive.

The result of two years of die-offs and poor reproduction (recruitment) by the animals that managed to survive means that there were far fewer deer and squirrels in the area this spring. Therefore I would not have thought the squirrels would be so intent upon eating my Autumn Olives to such an extent this year.

Judging by their behavior, I would say that the squirrels were simply enjoying the flavor of those plants. And, since there is no junk food in nature, they were simultaneously getting needed nutrients.

The squirrels worked intensely to reach every-last bud on every Autumn Olive in the yard. After the buds within easy reach were gone, I would often see a squirrel hanging upside down to reach buds at the tips of branches below. Sometimes it would lose its grip and fall to the ground. Other times, it would just chew through the branch altogether, take it in hand and eat the buds off just as we eat an ear of corn!

Autumn Olive, being a plant from Asia, is considered an invasive species—an alien plant that supposedly displaces native plants by crowding them out and “monopolizing essential resources.” I have not found that to be the case.

I planted five of these plants when I moved into my house 31 years ago. They formed a hedge that ran north to south, parallel to my veggie/fruit garden. Despite being only about eight feet away from the garden, Autumn Olive has never “invaded” it, preferring to grow in the nutrient-poor and dry-as-a-bone soil that has been left to its own devices following the clearing of the property.

Inside the garden fence, however, where I have added compost that enriched the soil, trees—such as Tulip Poplar, Chestnut and Red Oak, Red Maple, and American Sycamore—insist upon coming up. Removing them is a rite of spring.

Autumn Olive is an extremely useful plant for creating habitat in areas shunned by native plants, which is exactly why it has filled in areas alongside highways and long-ago-depleted cow fields. Indeed, government agencies brought this plant to this country in the first place to prevent erosion and to rehabilitate degraded areas because they knew native plants would not grow there.

Mysteriously, these agencies have somehow forgotten this fact and now call Autumn Olive “invasive” and a “pest.” But although it is easy to claim that these plants pushed out native plants, that notion is simply a myth perpetuated by people who do not recognize the prior history of the land. That loss of historical knowledge is detrimental to current efforts to create habitat because people are working to get this plant banned from privately owned land.

Yet Autumn Olive is perhaps the most valuable wildlife plant there could be, feeding birds and mammals in spring (buds, leaves, blooms) and late summer (fruits), and numerous species of bees and butterflies in early spring (nectar). More than three decades after planting it in my yard, I can say with the utmost assurance that Autumn Olive is a wonderful plant that has performed its function beautifully. I can also honestly say that it has never behaved in the manner people ascribe to it.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I was just reading through a copy of the Crozet Gazette that we picked up on a recent trip to Crozet. As someone who loves Shenandoah National Park, I was really disappointed to read your column. I am not a local, and you may think I shouldn’t speak to this, but I assure you that Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata) is an invasive plant in Maryland and many other parts of the country. It is included in Shenandoah NP’s list of invasive species in the park- please be sure to look at the maps:

    https://www.nps.gov/shen/learn/nature/invasive-plant-information.htm

    I sincerely hope you will do some research on Autumn Olive and change your mind about recommending it to your readers. I don’t think the fact that it is not invasive on your property is proof that it is not a problem for our native plants in natural and other areas.

  2. Hi Kim,
    I was not making a recommendation; I simply explained that people’s perception of this plant’s spread in the environment is mistaken. For example, as someone who has driven route 81 in Virginia uncountable times over the past 40+ years, I can assure you that the fields of Autumn Olive that people today see and think filled with Autumn Olive “in only a few years” (see link below for example of this kind of comment) instead took a couple of decades. Those fields have a history that explains why only particular plants are growing there. If native plants could grow there, they would. In the case of old cow fields, Virginia Cedar used to be the “invasive” plant farmers complained about (I know this first-hand). As far as I’m concerned, a field full of Virginia Cedar is not environmentally superior to a field of Autumn Olive as Autumn Olive supplies far more sustenance for far more species. Often, as in the photo used at the site I’ve provided a link for below, fallow fields contain a mix of cedar and olive, providing more biodiversity.
    I appreciate your interest.
    Sincerely, Marlene
    http://blueridgeprism.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Autumn-Olive-Factsheet-5-24-17-VDOF-w-BOX.pdf

  3. Hi Marlene,
    Thank you for your reply to my comment. All I can say is that the field in that photo you mention – even if it took 20 years to get that way – scares me. I think this is supported by the content of the article. I agree that feeding wildlife is a good quality, but would rather err on the side of preserving native species.

    I guess we will see what the next 20 years brings.
    Sincerely,
    Kim

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