Native to Europe and western Asia, Russian olive (Eleagnus angustifolia) is a thorny, small deciduous tree or large shrub. Russian olive is usually grown for its silvery foliage, small fragrant flowers, olive-like fruit, and ease of cultivation. It was introduced to North America in the late 1800s as an ornamental and later promoted by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for wildlife planting and windbreaks; it subsequently escaped into the wild. Additionally, it was often planted along roads, highways, rights-of-way, and riparian corridors because of its drought and salt tolerance. Nitrogen-fixing nodules allow this plant to survive in adverse environmental conditions.
The branches and trunks are covered with smooth brown bark, and twigs are occasionally thorny and covered with scales. Leaves are alternate, long lance-shaped, and dark or dull green to slightly silver above with dense silver scales beneath. Plants typically begin to flower and produce fruit at three years of age. Flowers are fragrant, silvery white outside and yellowish inside, appearing from May through June. After flowering, it produces an abundant crop of berry-like, silver-scaled fruit resembling olives from August to October. Fruit is edible and often spread by wildlife, particularly birds.
It is found as scattered plants in forest openings, open forests, and forest edges. Shade tolerant. Russian olive grows rapidly and re-sprouts quickly after cutting or burning. In North Carolina, it has been observed in the Mountains and Piedmont.
Russian olive is often confused with its biological invasive relative, autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata).