Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

August 4, 2016
Love or hate it, the Russian olive is here to stay

There I was, in the heat of the day, with no relief in sight. Even when the breeze blew, it offered no cooling — only the sense of what it feels like when you open an oven door. It was best to stay in the shade as much as possible, and keep hydrated by drinking copious amounts of water and my favorite Arizona beverage, sun tea — an ironic label in light of the relentless orb overhead.

This all sounds like the opening lines of a poorly written novel, or, perhaps I was having a flashback of my life in Arizona before moving here some 15 years ago. Nope — I’m describing our current reality that you and I are living, along with much of the U.S. right now.

When it gets this hot, it’s hard on everything. Plants must work to cope with the dehydration, trees tend to lose leaves. Getting into a hot car is no fun, and the house A/C runs non-stop. Years ago, I was in another part of the country, back east, during the early summer. Someone asked me where I was from. I told him Arizona. He commented that it must get hot there. I concurred. “How hot?” he asked. I told him ranges of 95 to 110 were not uncommon. He quipped, “yeah, but it’s a dry heat.” “So is the inside of a kiln,” I said. He got the point. Hot is hot, but before long, on a short, dark, frigid winter day, we’ll be missing this. No, really, as hard as it is to believe.

I took a drive a bit west this last week, and I found myself imagining SR-138 between Stansbury Park and the eastern edge of Grantsville to be a desolate stretch of backdrop in an old Western movie. It was tan, dusty, and hot. In reality, it WAS a desolate area, but abbreviated by the modern convenience of an air-conditioned automobile that would have been unfathomable to our ancestors. If indeed that area was used for a movie backdrop for something set in the 1850s, there would be some botanical inaccuracies that would need to be addressed. Both tumbleweeds and Russian olive, commonplace now, were not around in this area until the late 1800s.

Tumbleweeds, also known more accurately as “Russian Thistle,” are believed to have arrived about 1880 in shipments of Ukrainian flaxseed that arrived in South Dakota. Tumbleweeds, like Russian olive, thrive in disturbed soil, and the flat, windy lands of South Dakota provided the perfect place for tumbleweeds to do what they do well — tumble — merrily dispersing seed as they roll along.

As for Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), it too was an introduced species, arriving in North America sometime in the late 1800s. It first arrived in the central and western United States and was valued as an ornamental and windbreak tree. It quickly naturalized, and became common in Nevada and Utah by the 1920s, and by the 1950s it was readily seen in Colorado as well. While the Russian olive can be found throughout North America, it is most abundant in the Great Basin Desert (home, sweet home, for us!) and in wetlands adjacent to rivers and streams of the Great Plains.

Even though this tree is called a Russian olive, it is quite different than olive species that are cultivated for culinary uses. There are some similarities in leaf appearance, and the Russian olive does produce a small olive-type fruit that can range from sweet to astringent (sharp) tasting. There are other plants that grow in the wild that can be mistaken for the Russian olive, namely buffalo berry. Both the Russian olive and buffalo berry are from the oleaster (wild olive) family. While the Russian olive is an upright tree, buffalo berry is more of a shrub. However, both sport some intimidating thorns and can inflict some serious damage to man and beast alike if care is not taken.

Whether we like the Russian olive or not, it’s here to stay. As tenacious as it is, it does serve the purpose of providing shade and habitat in open spaces. Large stands of it provide cooling as well as wind protection.

I’m not being fatalistic in stating that this species will continue to be with us. It’s a fact. This species is deeply entrenched due to its adaptation to our climate and soil conditions. It is one of the most persistent species and will stand up to forces that will “do in” most other trees.

The Russian olive rebounds after range fires, as well as when it’s broken or cut off at the base. Plentiful shoots will erupt from a stump or wounded surface roots and start all over again. This almost sounds like something from a horror movie!

New trees are readily started with the help of birds that eat the fruit from the tree. The seed passes through the digestive system of our feathered friends, and are distributed, far and wide, in the droppings of the birds.

We’ve experienced this firsthand. We have ongoing encounters with Russian olive saplings starting from the base of several shrubs, beds and in the wells of our orchard trees. They are tough and don’t pull up readily. The best treatment we have found is cut them off a few inches above the soil level and immediately brush the stumps with undiluted glysophate (the most well-known brand is Round Up). We use a 41 percent concentrate for best outcomes. The sooner you apply the herbicide after cutting, the better. The cut stem has the maximum moisture it’s going to have, and will draw the herbicide into the stem faster and deeper than waiting for even a short amount of time. Of course, exercise caution in applying full-strength chemical, using disposable non-penetrable gloves and eye protection.

While all this sounds dire, not all is bad related to yardscapes and uses of the wood that Russian olive produces. One doesn’t need to look far to see this durable tree in place in various landscaped settings. Russian olives are readily found in Stansbury Park, such as lining the frontage road between Village Boulevard and Stansbury Parkway. A visit to my good friends at the Fawson Preserve reveals the fact that they have several Russian olives on their property, and more at the fringes where it has more heavily naturalized. They have trimmed several and allowed the top of the canopies to form. Their lighter green foliage and branching shape contrasts nicely with other trees and shrubs.

When I asked Gary Fawson for some pictures that would illustrate his experience with Russian olives, he offered to include pictures of the cuts and scratches on his arms and head (funny, Gary!). He effectively made the point that while they can be included in your grounds, there will be some inconveniences in doing so, including controlling their spread, and avoiding their defenses when you prune them.

While the wood that comes from these trees is not highly sought after, it can be used both for firewood and smaller-piece furniture building. The trunk of the tree is moderately sized, tends to have curved growth, and a good amount of branching and sub-branching. A felled and cut-apart Russian olive tree will create an impressive brush pile, but has limited amounts of sizable wood that would be easily cut into cordwood or furniture stock. When burned, it does have a fairly good BTU output, somewhere along the lines of elm. It’s not especially aromatic, but when heat is needed, scent becomes secondary.

Mr. Fawson is not only good at creating habitats, but he’s a proficient woodworker. If one can take proverbial lemons and make them into lemonade, then Gary can take Russian olive and make it into furniture — and he has! A beautiful hand-built Adirondack chair graces one of the porches, made from stock that Gary milled himself from Russian olive on their property. It’s a hardwood, with lots of color and variation from piece to piece.

Perhaps there’s a life lesson in there. While we cannot control what is all around us, we can make decisions of what we’ll do with our surroundings. And since Russian olive is firmly a literal part of our landscape around here, we best learn to minimize its negative impacts while maximizing its contributions. It’s the Gary way.

Jay Cooper can be contacted at jay@dirtfarmerjay.com, or you can visit youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.

Jay Cooper

Garden Spot Columnist at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Jay Cooper is a new contributing writer for the Garden Spot column. He replaced Diane Sagers, who retired in November 2013 after writing the column for 27 years. Also known as Dirt Farmer Jay, Cooper and his wife have been residents of Erda since 2001 after moving to Utah from Tucson, AZ. A passionate gardener and avid reader of horticultural topics, for several years he has been a member of Utah State University’s Master Gardeners Program, and served as chapter president in 2013. Cooper says Tooele County has an active and vibrant gardening community, and the Garden Spot column will continue to share a wide range of gardening, landscaping, home skills and rural living themes.

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