The Russian olive tree is one of the hardiest of plants used in American gardens.
It is a hardy tree way up to the Canadian Border and considerably beyond.
A member of the oleaster family, its scientific name is Elaeagnus angustifolia.
There are many different kinds of Elaeagnus, from virtually all parts of the northern hemisphere.
Its been described, but botanists have not altered the most appropriate name given by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, in the middle 1700′s, for “narrow-leaved Elaeagnus” or olive-like shrub which continues to be very suitable and definitive.
It is quite unfortunate that all botanical names are not as durable.
Valued For Foliage
In most cases we select plants for the landscape because of qualities of flower or fruit, but the Russian olive is valued principally for its foliage.
Although the flowers are fragrant, they are very small and inconspicuous, more on flowers later.
The fruits are not outstanding ornamentally, either, but the plant nevertheless has several sterling qualities which have made it valuable since colonial times when the early colonists probably brought, it over from Europe.
The silvery leaves and branching of this tall shrub or small tree make it outstanding for many months, and its remarkable hardiness and resistance to the usual variety of pests and troubles add in giving it a high rating.
Small Tree / Shrub – Beautiful Gray-Green Foliage
While this “tree” is often considered a shrub, in favorable conditions, it soon develops into a small tree, and may in time surpass 20 feet in height and 10 inches in trunk diameter.
It is valued chiefly for its beautiful gray-green to near-silver foliage. The leaves, from 2 to 3 inches long, are narrow, dull green above and silvery beneath, so that when the foliage is blown by the slightest breeze, the general effect is of a gray-green mass.
These gray coverings reflect light in a very striking fashion, and a single plant or a small group will command attention from some distance.
Since this beautiful foliage color is found on very few other hardy Northern woody plants, the oleaster is a very important asset for any garden where a color change seems desirable.
Roughly Shredding Brown Bark – Gnarled Twisted Trunks
Another unusual quality is its roughly-shredding, brown bark that is especially interesting all winter long.
Old trunks are frequently gnarled and twisted into odd shapes, further adding to the ornamental value of the oleaster in the winter landscape.
Growing Russian Olive Trees
This tree can be grown in dry, sterile soils – something that cannot be said of many popular trees and large shrubs.
For this reason, it is popular in some of the drier areas of the Pacific Northwest and far up in the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the latter area requiring hardiness under extremely cold winter conditions.
With plenty of sunlight and moderately fertile, well-drained soil, young plants grow rapidly.
After two or three years from the time of planting the results will be gratifying.
Unfortunately, a word of caution is needed: It does not transplant with the greatest of ease.
Small plants should be purchased. The larger the plant transplanted, the larger should be the ball of soil around the roots.
When selecting a place for it in the garden, be certain that it will not have to be moved later.
In any garden it is best used where the silvery gray foliage will contrast to the normal green of surrounding trees.
Sometimes this is accomplished against an evergreen background, but more frequently the plant must take its place in among deciduous plantings. In this case, it should be planted in the front.
Flowers Have Much Charm
Despite the greater landscape value of the foliage, the flowers of oleaster have much charm and add a great deal in interest and fragrance to the garden calendar.
The flowers of all the species of Elaeagnus are very similar, and because of their delightful fragrance those of oleaster are particularly like the blooms of Elaeagnus pungens. From the axils of the leaves single flowers or clusters of 2 or 3 develop in late spring or early summer.
These are a little less than 1/2 inch long and may be described as small, silvery trumpets with four small lobes at the end. The inner part of these small lobes is yellow.
From a distance one does not see these diminutive blooms but, on approaching, the pleasing fragrance is first noted and on close analysis (particularly under a hand-lens), the beauty of the flowers themselves can be enjoyed.
In late autumn, the ellipsoid fruits, also just less than 1/2 inch long in most cases, are mealy and ripe and connoisseurs may enjoy their sweet flavor.
Diseases seem a negligible factor in growing the Russian olive bush, shrub or tree, and among the insects, aphids are about the only ones causing much trouble.
These infestations seem to occur at the end of the season and in general cause no particular damage, although the usual contact poisons can correct the situation easily.
One Additional Trait of Character
One additional trait of Elaeagnus angustifolia may be of interest to gardeners who prefer straight and symmetrical trees and shrubs.
Due perhaps to a scanty root system which must be a most efficient one, sizable plants sometimes start to lean in one direction unless they are balanced by pruning or given support.
In time, this leaning may become particularly pronounced and one sometimes sees old trees with trunks at angles of 45 degrees or more from the vertical or even resting partially on the ground.
This actually adds much character to the plants and increases their beauty so one is tempted to encourage the tendency. When considered in this light, the trait scarcely seems detrimental, and it adds one more feature to the distinction of a very hardy subject in the front rank of garden value.