Russian Olive: A Thorny Menace

Nov 20, 2019 | Education

It is not uncommon to see Russian olive trees in fields, open areas, grasslands, riverbanks, lakeshores, and roadsides throughout Wyoming. Despite their thorny branches, the gray-green leaves, fragrant blossoms, and fast growth make them an attractive choice for home landscaping in urban areas.  So what’s the problem with Russian olive? Individually, the trees don’t pose much of a problem, but left unmanaged, they become a serious threat to the ecological balance along waterways.  So much so, they are designated a noxious weed in Wyoming.

Ecological Damage

Like many noxious weeds, they have several characteristics that enable them to outcompete native trees. They can tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions including high winds, flooding, drought, extreme temperatures, and saline or alkaline soil conditions. Russian olive trees can quickly become the dominant species in areas after introduction due to its adaptability, aggressive reproduction, and rapid growth rate. Once established, Russian olive crowds out desirable native riparian trees and shrubs such as cottonwood and willow, thereby reducing animal and plant diversity. Because of its ability to quickly establish along streambanks, Russian olive can alter the natural flooding patterns and reduce availability of nutrients and moisture. Also, the tree’s thorny branches extend to the ground, making wildlife forage inaccessible. Russian olive trees can grow so dense that people and even wildlife are unable to walk between the trees.

What can you do?

You may be thinking to yourself, how can just a few Russian olive trees in my yard be a problem? The simple answer is birds. Russian olive seed is highly desired by birds. Considering how prolific Russian olive trees are at producing fruit, thousands of seeds are available to be consumed and spread miles away. Wildlife, such as small rodents, coyotes, and deer, also transport Russian olive seeds and plant parts, which can propagate, great distances from the parent tree. Thus, although not initially obvious, any Russian olive tree is a threat to create significant ecological damage.

Homeowners can take an active role in minimizing the spread of Russian olive by not planting them or removing existing trees.  A good alternative to Russian olive is the silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea). This hardy shrub possesses many of the same characteristics of Russian olive; it has an attractive round shape, silvery leaves, and produces many flowers.  Additionally, it is highly adaptable to various soils and tolerates drought conditions. Though this shrub has the word berry in its name, it actually creates many small fruits that are edible and can be eaten fresh or dried. They are quite tart and are often use in a variety of recipes like jams, jellies, and sauces. However, harvesting the fruits can be challenging with the abundance of many sharp thorns!

Worth the Effort

Russian olives are still viewed by some people as a desirable tree for ornamental plantings and windbreaks. However, the few advantages they may have are outweighed by the ecological damage to native habitats.  Once established in dense stands, the management challenges are significant; removal of Russian olive trees is very expensive and re-establishing native plant communities is difficult and takes many years.  The most effective management for minimizing the damage created by Russian olive is preventing new populations from establishing. Not only can you educate others about the Russian olive, if you have Russian olive trees on your property, you can be part of the solution by removing existing trees and using alternative plants for windbreaks and ornamental use. Only with a concerted effort by everyone can we eradicate this thorny menace.

by Ken Henke
Weed Specialist


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