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How to control Russian olive tree, an invasive species in America


The Russian Olive tree, as opposed to native American silverberry, is a highly invasive species in some parts of the United States and Canada.

The latin name of this tree is Elaeagnus angustifolia. Though it looks very similar to the common olive tree,  they belong to different plant families. Getting rid of Russian olive is very labor-intensive but quite straightforward.

Russian olive tree, a short story

This short tree is actually native to central Asia and Eastern Europe. Reports of its use date back to ancient Persia and India, since edible Russian olive fruits were harvested for oil.

This hardy and vigorous plant spread to many parts of Europe, and until today, Russian olive is used there as an ornamental and useful shrub.

The many qualities of Russian olive set the stage for its introduction in North America: a fast-growing, resilient plant was needed to stave off erosion. In the early XXth century (1900s), horticulture stores imported Russian olive and sold it to their customers. It helped mark property edges, stabilize river banks, provide melliferous flowers for bees and serve as wind-resistant ornamental hedges.

Russian olive then started spreading and overcrowding native vegetation. The very reasons for which it was imported led to an imbalance in local vegetation. Upcoming generations are now learning to control Russian olive, truly a force unleashed by their forefathers.

Controlling Russian olive, raising awareness

Take local action against Russian olive

What makes dealing with this plant quite difficult is that it’s also very appealing. Fruits are useful and the fragrance is nice, so it’s difficult to raise awareness about the invasiveness of Russian olive.

Moreover, getting rid of Russian olive is a bane because of its thorns and the vigorous growing back. Even persons who understand the issue don’t easily engage into the work-intensive labor required.

But it actually isn’t so difficult to reduce Russian olive infestations once your mind is set to it.

Local regulations written to control Russian olive

In both the United States and Canada, local governments where the plant has become invasive have added Russian olive to their noxious weed list. The local Department of Agriculture can inform you on whether your area is subject to restrictions on growing Russian olive.

Possible restrictions can be that:

  • it is illegal to plant, grow or cultivate Russian olive,
  • sale of Russian olive not allowed,
  • transplanting Russian olive is not permitted,
  • commerce or sharing of Russian olive seeds is disallowed,
  • cutting down or removing of existing specimens is mandatory.

Usually, local ordinances and governments can support taking action through:

  • Russian olive weed-control programs,
  • propagation maps and zone reports,
  • dedicated forest management teams and task forces,
  • stipends or grants to refund expenses for removing Russian olive,
  • hotlines or complaint lines to report places where Russian Olive grows.

Grassroots campaign against russian olive

How to stop invasive Russian olive

As said earlier, it’s very labor-intensive to wipe out Russian olive trees over a wide area. However, it is possible, and the recommended method to kill Russian olive without endangering native plants is the cut stump method.

  • Dead russian oliveWear protective clothing against thorns.
  • Cut the Russian olive at the stump as low as you can.
  • Apply a natural herbicide directly on the stump along the outer growth rings.

Remember that if you don’t apply the herbicide, the Russian olive will grow back even more vigorous than before. High-strength vinegar will do the trick.

A few tips on how to make weeding out Russian olive easy:

  • Use a chainsaw or even heavy forest machinery to speed the cutting up, if you’ve got a large surface to cover.
  • Work as a team, with one person cutting and the other spraying the natural herbicide on the cut stump.
  • Check that you also get rid of smaller trees and saplings.
  • Spray only the outermost growth rings to save on herbicide, since the center won’t sprout anyways. Focus on the live circle just near the bark.
  • Seedlings under a year old can be pulled out manually with the root.
  • Spray more vinegar on the stump every fortnight for two months.
  • Check in subsequent years for new growth.

Other ways to remove Russian olive

Other weed removal solutions are ineffective against Russian olive, unless conducted by professionals. So don’t try to ignite fires, spray herbicide on vast areas, or simply cutting without using herbicide.

Burning Russian Olive

Some pest control specialists advocate for using fire to control Russian Olive. This is possible, but it only works in rare circumstances.

Risks associated to fire far outweigh the benefits.

Fire against russian oliveIndeed, russian olive can sprout back from roots and stump after burning, especially where soil is deep. Precautions for this technique to work are:

  • Involve the local fire department
  • Prepare native re-vegetation plants, sow/plant immediately after burning (as soon as the soil is cool).
  • Protect area from livestock
  • Monitor for re-growth monthly at least

Incidentally, Russian olive is a great species for firewood, so collect any logs, dry them off (at least one whole year), and you’re set for winter!

Biological control against Russian olive

Smart tip about cutting Russian olive down

Since Russian olive also propagates through cuttings and layering, don’t keep cut branches laying around in moist, fertile soil: some might sprout again. Gather them up and dispose of them diligently.

Image credits (edits Gaspard Lorthiois):
CC BY-SA 4.0: Lazare Gagnidze, Famartin
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Your reactions
  • Drago wrote on 16 March 2021 at 13 h 35 min

    In the early XXth century, horticulture stores imported Russian olive and sold it for customers. Which century was that?

    • Gaspard wrote on 23 March 2021 at 11 h 31 min

      Hi Drago, that would be the early 1900s. Roman numerals aren’t so common, but they’re nice so I try to keep them here and there… like a connection to our faraway past!

  • Steve Zondory wrote on 23 May 2020 at 22 h 13 min

    For the “Cut Stump” method of control. what is the natural herbicide recommended to spray the stump?

  • Sybil wrote on 16 May 2020 at 22 h 06 min

    Excellent coverage. Thank you. We are in NM where it grows quite well. The fragrance is beyond compare. I believe its beauty and aroma are the driving forces behind leaving them alone, replacing cherished bushes/trees that don’t do well here.

    • Gaspard wrote on 17 May 2020 at 10 h 11 min

      Thanks, Sybil. It’s declared an invasive in New Mexico, and it’s true that trying to get rid of them is a sacrifice in all ways: hard work, often unsuccessful, and sadness at seeing an otherwise delightful shrub go away…