The fruit of the Russian-olive resembles an olive and the leaf that
of the chaste-tree. Elaeagnus is from the Greek elaia ,
|| The Russian-olive is a member of Elaeagnaceae, the
oleaster family. Its leaves are deciduous, alternate, simple , 1 to 3
inches (2.54 to 7.62 cm) long, narrow and dull green, almost gray in color. The flowers occur in May and are small, white
with a yellow inside and fragrant. The fruit is oval, 1/2 inch (1.27 cm) long, silvery gray, with sweet tasting flesh. The fruit
matures in late summer, but may persist on the tree through the entire winter. Young twigs are silvery and often have thorns. Bark breaks into long shredded pieces and is dark gray in color.
Russian-olive is native to southern Europe and to western and central
Asia. This wide geographical range, which stretches
from the Mediterranean Sea to northern China, encompasses many climates, some similar to South Dakota, but some much
milder. Many of the early prairie plantings of Russian-olive failed because trees were brought from areas with milder
climates. It was not until Mennonites brought hardy trees from Russia that Russian-olive became established in South Dakota.
The trees adapted well to South Dakota. They tolerate the cold winters
and low precipitation since they are from the Russian
steppes, or plains, where the annual rainfall is only 12 to 14 inches. The alkaline soils are also similar. Russian-olive may
have adapted too well. In some areas of South Dakota, Russian-olive is out-growing the native vegetation and taking over
range and pasture land.
When it was first introduced, the Russian-olive was relatively pest
free since its pests were not here, but in Asia. Also, since
there were not a lot of Russian-olives planted and these plantings were spread out, very few native diseases became a
problem. Now, however, with Russian-olives a common sight from South Dakota to New England, diseases have become a
problem. Probably the most important is phomopsis canker. This fungus disease was first found in Missouri in 1963, about a
hundred years after the tree was introduced into the United States. The disease kills branches and, if left unchecked, can
eventually kill the entire tree. The disease is contributing to the decline of Russian-olives in windbreaks across the Great
Life Span: Russian-olives are not a long-lived species. In the
United States average life expectancy is about 50 years, but
with diseases such as phomopsis canker beginning to kill trees the average life span will probably decrease.
Size: Russian-olive is not a very large tree, rarely reaching
30 to 40 feet (9 to 12 m) tall. The climate of South Dakota must
agree with it since the national champion is near Rapid City, just east of the Black Hills speedway. This tree has a
circumference of 149 inches (378 cm) and is 52 feet (16 m) tall with a crown spread of 62 feet (19 m).
Russian-olives are primarily used as a windbreak for farms and a snowbreak
along railroads and roads. The tree makes a
very thick hedge that stops livestock from penetrating and reduces the severity of wind. The other use of Russian-olive in
South Dakota is as an ornamental tree. The narrow silvery-green leaves are an attractive addition to the landscape and the
tree is drought and salt tolerant. Wildlife have also found the tree to be a useful shelter and the fruit is a winter food source
for turkeys and other birds. Russian-olive wood is not very valuable since the tree rarely achieves the size necessary for
Is There A Closely Related Native Species?
One of the most important native members of the Elaeagnaceae family is the silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea ),
which was known to the Lakota as mastinca pute'can, "rabbit lip tree. " Buffaloberry is native from Minnesota to
Saskatchewan and south to Nevada and Kansas. It is found throughout South Dakota. The thorny shrub sometimes can reach a
height of 18 feet (5.5 m). While a state champion buffaloberry has not been identified, the national champion is 22 feet (7 m)
tall. It is similar in appearance to Russian-olive, but the leaves are arranged oppositely rather than alternately . The plant is
sometimes used as a windbreak or ornamental . The fruit is edible and was eaten fresh or dried by the American Indians.
Publication of the Russian-olive fact sheet was funded by the
S.D. Department of Agriculture, Division of Forestry, Pierre,