How to Get Rid of Autumn Olive Shrubs

Although autumn olive shrubs’ silvery leaves and red berries are beautiful, these plants also have an ugly tendency to choke out other vegetation and take over your garden. Join plant expert Briana Yablonski to learn how to remove these invasive shrubs.

get rid of autumn olive. Close-up of a large lush Autumn olive bush (Elaeagnus umbellata) in a sunny garden. The Autumn olive is a deciduous shrub notable for its silver-green foliage and abundant clusters of small, fragrant flowers. Its lance-shaped leaves are silvery on the underside, giving the plant a distinctive shimmering appearance.

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Even if you’re not familiar with autumn olive, you may have seen the plants without realizing it. Their silvery-green leaves form large shrubs that line old logging roads, fill in empty spaces in suburban areas, and take over in disturbed areas throughout the eastern United States. However, these plants weren’t always here.

These shrubs are native to East Asia, where they grow amongst other native species. Humans first brought these plants to the United States in 1830, and their beautiful leaves and bright red berries have been here ever since. While these plants accomplished the goal of revegetating barren landscapes, it turns out their rapid growth caused them to become an invasive species.

If you’re fighting invasive shrubs on your property, you’re not alone. While the widespread nature of this problem isn’t great for ecology, it means others have determined ways to remove autumn olive successfully! Keep reading to learn your options for dealing with this invasive shrub.

What Is Autumn Olive?

Close-up of a flowering olive bush in a sunny garden. This deciduous shrub features elongated, lance-shaped leaves that are silvery-green on top and silvery-white underneath, creating a shimmering effect. The shrub produces small, fragrant, creamy-white flowers clustered in elongated clusters.
This charming shrub grows tall with metallic leaves, bearing tart and nutritious fruits beloved by birds.

Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) is a medium to large shrub native to Korea, China, and Japan. It’s not a member of the olive genus but is more closely related to roses.

The plants have a multi-branching habit and can grow over 20 feet tall in the right environments! And since its roots harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria, it can grow in disturbed and nutrient-poor soil. This, along with the plant’s rapid growth, is why government agencies used it to stabilize eroding hillsides and fill in empty areas.

One of the most noteworthy characteristics is the small silver or bronze scales that cover the plant’s stems and leaves. These scales give the plants a metallic appearance and cause them to shimmer in the sunlight. It just takes one look at the plants to see why people thought they would make great additions to the ornamental garden!

Along with their metallic appearance, these plants also produce white or pale yellow trumpet-shaped flowers. These blooms give way to bright red or orange round fruits covered in shimmery scales. The fruits have a delicious tart flavor and are high in vitamin C and numerous antioxidants. While they’re edible to humans, birds also enjoy them.

How Did Olive Autumn Become a Problem?

Close-up of an Elaeagnus umbellata bush with ripe berries in a sunny garden. Its bark is grayish-brown. The leaves are elongated and alternate, displaying a silver-green hue on top and a silvery-white underside, which shimmers in sunlight. The shrub bears small round berries that ripen to a vibrant red speckled with silver scales in the fall.
Introduced in 1830 for ornamental purposes, autumn olives rapidly spread, posing ecological challenges.

Humans first introduced these shrubs to the United States in 1830 as an ornamental plant. After this first introduction, people continually planted it for its ornamental attributes as well as its ability to provide food and shelter for wildlife.

However, planting efforts ramped up in the mid-20th century when the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) widely planted it to control erosion and establish windbreaks. Little did they know this plant would soon cause ecological headaches.

Since then, it has spread throughout the East Coast and parts of the Midwest. The plants primarily spread through their seeds—birds eat the tasty fruits and then release the seeds wherever they travel. It’s not uncommon for one plant to produce hundreds of seedlings within a single year.

Although the plant doesn’t spread through rhizomes, it will regrow if cut. Therefore, successful removal efforts involve clearing the entire plant, root system and all.

How to Remove Autumn Olive

If you inherited a house with these shrubs in the backyard or noticed some of these plants popping up in a nearby woodland, remove them ASAP to prevent further spread. Although removing these invasive shrubs isn’t difficult, it requires the proper knowledge as well as patience and follow-through. Remember, you not only have to start the job…you also have to finish it!

Follow these steps to remove autumn olive from your land so you can nurture plants you love.

Properly Identify the Plant

Close-up of shrub with unripe fruits in a sunny garden. The shrub boasts elongated, silver-green leaves that shimmer in the sunlight, and its branches. Amidst the foliage, clusters of small, green fruits start to form, gradually enlarging as they ripen. These unripe fruits, though still green, exhibit a speckling of silver scales.
Identify autumn olive by its leaves and stems.

Before you start removing plants, stop and take a moment to ensure you’re taking out the plants you think you are! Autumn olive is the easiest to identify in the spring through early fall.

Look for 2-4 inch long oblong leaves that are dark green on top and silver on the bottom. You can also inspect the stems for the telltale silver or bronze dots. If you’re unsure, use a plant identification app to help you come to conclusions.

Survey the Infestation and Plan Your Attack

Close-up of a flowering bush (Elaeagnus umbellata) in a garden. The bush showcases delicate small flowers. Arranged in clusters known as umbels, these fragrant creamy-white blooms appear amidst the shrub's foliage, lending a subtle elegance to its appearance. The leaves are lanceolate, oblong, and silver-green in color.
Assess the infestation size and surrounding area.

Once you determine that you are, in fact, dealing with autumn olive, survey the size of the infestation. Are you dealing with a single large plant? Is a large patch covered with a mix of medium shrubs and small seedlings? The size of the plants and the extent of their spread will impact the ideal control method.

Along with checking out the extent of the infestation you’re dealing with, survey the surrounding area. If you hope to remove the shrubs in your yard but the surrounding neighborhood is filled with other autumn olive plants, prepare to continually remove new seedlings.

Start with Mechanical Control

Close-up of a gardener digging a bush out of the soil with a shovel in the garden. The gardener is dressed in black moccasins and brown corduroy pants. The bush has vertical trunks with gray-brown smooth bark.
Begin with manual labor, removing small seedlings by hand in spring.

Regardless of the type and size of infestation, it’s always best to start with mechanical control before resorting to chemical methods. In other words, get ready for some good old-fashioned manual labor!

If you’re dealing with small seedlings, it’s possible to remove the entire plants by hand. As long as you remove all of the roots, the plants won’t come back. The spring is the best time to pull these seedlings since the soil is moist and the roots are weak.

Larger shrubs are more difficult to remove via mechanical control alone. However, it is possible to cut the trunks near the ground and dig up the entire root system. Just be aware any remaining roots can send up new growth.

If an entire yard or understory is covered, you can also mow or bush hog the plants. While this won’t remove them for good, it will allow you to stop large plants from producing fruits. In this regard, mechanical control is the first step among other forms of control to follow.

Move to Chemical Control

While I tend to utilize herbicides as little as possible, I recognize they’re the best way to fully remove mature shrubs. But that doesn’t mean you should grab a jug of glyphosate and start spraying! Proper herbicide application is key to causing as little environmental harm as possible.

So, what does responsible chemical control look like? It depends on the size of the plants you’re dealing with! Two common ways to remove autumn olive with herbicides are the cut stump method and the basal bark method.

Cut Stump Method

Close-up of cut stumps coated with blue herbicide to control invasive plants. These trunks have smooth gray-brown bark. Sections of stumps are covered in blue.
Use the cut stump method with herbicide for effective removal.

The cut stump method works great for plants of all sizes, but it’s typically reserved for medium to large shrubs. It involves cutting a plant close to the ground and immediately applying a systemic herbicide to the stump. The herbicide travels down the xylem and phloem of the trunk and throughout the plant’s root system, killing it and preventing regrowth.

The cut stump method works well when autumn olive is mixed in with desirable plants since the herbicides only contact the invasive shrubs. This method works best in the late summer or early fall, but you can also complete it during other times of the year.

You have multiple effective options when it comes to selecting a herbicide to use for this method. Glyphosate, triclopyr, and picloram are three frequently used products. Regardless of which option you choose, make sure to use a concentration that kills the plant without causing excess environmental harm. If you’re using glyphosate, a 20% solution is often effective.

Since applying herbicide immediately after cutting is essential for this method to work, team up with someone else if you’re treating lots of plants. The first person can cut the shrubs down, and the second person can apply the herbicide. Whether you’re working alone or with a teammate, follow these steps.

  1. Mix your herbicide following product instructions. Consider adding a dye to the product since this will allow you to see which stumps you’ve already treated.
  2. Cut plants 12 to 18 inches above the ground.
  3. Apply herbicide to the cut portion of the trunk. You can use a sponge, brush, or sprayer to apply the product to the stump.

That’s it! Remember to monitor your plants for signs of regrowth and retreat if necessary. Leaving at least a foot of trunk makes it possible to do so.

Basal Bark Method

Close-up of a tree trunk being painted with herbicides for invasive plants. A gardener applies blue herbicides with a large brush. The tree trunk is covered with gray-brown bark.
Use the basal bark method in late fall to early spring.

While the cut stump method is the best chemical method for keeping herbicides contained, you can also utilize the basal bark method to remove both large and small plants. This method involves painting the bottom of the plant’s trunk with herbicide rather than applying the product to the cut stump. Therefore, you don’t have to remove the plant’s foliage prior to treatment.

Since the herbicide is applied to the outside of the plant’s bark, experts recommend mixing the chemicals with a carrier oil to help the product penetrate the plant. Plant ecologists often use triclopyr and mineral oil for this method, but you can find other suitable options.

The best time to utilize the basal bark method is during the late fall through early spring. The plants should be dormant but not frozen.

There’s some disagreement about the amount of herbicide to apply. Many organizations recommend covering the bottom 12-16 inches of the trunk with herbicide. However, applying a thin layer of the herbicide 6-12 inches above the ground has shown to be 95% effective. Regardless of which method you choose, make sure to be careful not to spray surrounding non-target plants.

Spray Vegetation

Bush treatments with pesticides. View of a long thin gun with a red spray nozzle spraying pesticides onto a bush in a spring garden. The bush has spreading stems with grayish bark, covered with small young shoots.
Spraying foliage with herbicide isn’t ideal because it risks harming non-target species.

Although it’s not a highly recommended option, you can also get rid of autumn olive by spraying the foliage with herbicide. I don’t like to use this method since the herbicides are more likely to contact non-target species and also run off into the surrounding environment. This is why selective, targeted herbicides are always preferable.

Monitor for Regrowth

Close-up of a branch of an autumn olive plant with young leaves on a blurred background. Small lance-shaped leaves grow in clusters at the tips of the branches. These leaves are silvery underneath and greenish with silvery dots on top.
Adjust treatment if the plants continue regrowing.

Since these plants can regrow from stumps and roots that you leave behind, a key part of treatment is checking for regrowth. If you notice new shoots and leaves emerging, treat the plants again.

If you find the plants continue to regrow after treatment, consider switching to a different treatment method. You may also need to alter the type and dose of herbicide if you’re using chemical methods.

Native Alternatives

Although autumn olive is a beautiful plant to look at, it has an ugly impact on the surrounding environment. Therefore, I recommend avoiding planting it at home. If you’re looking for native alternatives, consider these shrubs.

American Beautyberry

Close-up of American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) in a sunny garden. This deciduous shrub is distinguished by its vibrant display of clustered, iridescent purple berries. These berries form in tight clusters along the stems, creating a mesmerizing spectacle against the shrub's dark green foliage. The leaves are simple, opposite, and broadly ovate to elliptic in shape, with a serrated margin. They are dark green and have a somewhat coarse texture.
Beautyberry is both beautiful and ecologically friendly.

When I first saw beautyberry lining the entrance of my local nature center, I knew it must be both beautiful and ecologically friendly. And it is!

The plant produces bright green leaves and clusters of small magenta fruits. It’s native to the southeast United States, where it happily grows through heat and humidity.

Spicebush

Close-up of a blooming Spicebush against a blurred background of a sunny garden. Its branches are slender, gracefully arching, and often form dense thickets. This deciduous shrub produces clusters of small, fragrant yellow flowers. These inconspicuous flowers, borne on bare stems, provide an early nectar source for pollinators.
The lovely spicebush boasts fragrant yellow flowers.

Native to areas throughout the eastern half of the United States, spicebush is a medium to large shrub. It’s well known for its early spring flowers that are followed by red berries. Both the twigs and berries have an aroma and flavor similar to allspice. In the fall, the plant’s foliage turns bright gold or red.

Winterberry

Close-up of Winterberry shrub in the garden. The Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a captivating deciduous shrub notable for its vibrant display of berries during the winter months. This shrub. has glossy green leaves and clusters of bright red berries.
Plant winterberry for vibrant red berries, attracting birds and enhancing gardens.

If you can’t get enough of autumn olive’s bright red berries, consider planting winterberry! A member of the holly family, winterberry produces plump clusters of round red berries that remain throughout the winter.

Not only do they add beauty to an otherwise drab garden, but they also serve as an excellent food source for birds like cedar waxwings and gray catbirds.

Hazelnut

Close-up of Hazelnut plant on blurred background. This deciduous shrub has alternate, simple, and broadly ovate leaves with serrated margins, ranging in color from bright green to yellowish-green. The fruits, commonly referred to as hazelnuts or filberts, are small, round, and enclosed in a leafy husk known as an involucre.
Opt for hazelnut for a tall native alternative that provides wildlife habitat.

If you’re looking for the tall size of autumn olive plants but want a native alternative, hazelnut is a good option. These trees are native to much of the East Coast and Midwest, where they provide both habitat and food for wildlife, including birds and small mammals.

Final Thoughts

While removing autumn olive plants can seem like a big undertaking, it is possible! Remember to choose the best removal method for your situation and stay on top of any regrowth. When it comes time to replace your shrubs, choose native plants that provide beauty and benefit other members of the environment.

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