Shimmering silver leaves set Russian olive apart

Often grown just for its beauty, the Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia)m is also frequently used to make a living barrier, much like that provided by the multiflora rose (but less thorny even though sometimes spiny), and without the fierce self-sowing propensity of that lovely profligate.

Russian olive and its close relative, autumn olive (E. umbellatum),m are often chosen for use along highways, and are commonly seen in center divider strips, where they effectively block the lights of oncoming cars. As they prefer plenty of sunlight and are little bothered by smoke, dust, other types of air pollution , and high winds, they are well suited to such use.

The berries of the Russian olive are hard, olive-shaped, about half an inch long, yellowish in color, and densely covered with silver. The berries of the autumn olive, by contrast, are rounder, pulpy, and reddish, overlaid with silver.

The Russian olive's leaves are longer and thinner than those of autumn olive. In both species, the upper leaf surface is olive green and the lower one shining aluminum or silver color, giving an almost metallic appearance.

Russian olive gets its name from the true olive tree, which it somewhat resembles. It grows from 15 to 20 feet in height. Autumn olive is a bit lower and more spreading.

Both species belong to the oleaster family and sometimes go by that name.

Russian olive, a native of western Asia and Europe, is hardy even in New England. It is as tolerant of seashore conditions as it is of the city and is frequently used in plantings that must take a certain amount of buffeting from wind and spray. It grows best in light, sandy loam with ample sunlight.

If pruned, Russian olive makes a fine hedge. Yet its charm seems to me to be in its movement and changing color in the breeze.

The fruits of both trees are said to be favorites of some birds; brown thrashers and mockingbirds use them for nesting.

There are other species of elaeagnus suitable for shrub borders or specimen planting. For example, E. multiflora (goumi) has red berries which are enjoyed by the birds. It grows about 9 feet tall and is highly resistant to smoke.

A Southern-growing evergreen elaeagnus, E. pungensm (thorny elaeagnus),m is extremely fragrant and quite thorny. Like the other, its berries attract the birds.

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