If you’ve been parking in the lot just west of the Museum (Edison Johnson) you may have noticed a strong smell wafting through the air upon exiting your vehicle. The fragrance, or odor, is coming from a plant growing along the east edge of the parking lot, a sprawling shrub known as thorny olive (Elaeagnus pungens). As the Latin name suggests, it’s a powerful smell, a bit too much for my liking, but most folks think it pleasant.
If the name sounds familiar, it probably is. Thorny olive is a relative of the very invasive autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). There’s much autumn olive on the Museum campus. Autumn olive is a shrub which doesn’t get much taller than 10 feet, if that. Thorny olive will grow up tree trunks covering entire trees and other shrubs up to more than 20 feet in height.
Another difference between autumn and thorny olives is the timing of their fruit production. While both produce nearly the same type of fruit, reddish 1/4” – 1/2” drupes with silvery spots, autumn olive blooms in spring producing fruit in summer to fall. Thorny olive is in bloom now, the fruit maturing in spring. Thorny olive’s leaves are about 3” long and up to 2” wide. The upper surfaces of the rough-to-the-touch leaves are dark green while the under surfaces are much lighter, almost silvery with reddish-brown speckles throughout.
The approximately 3/8” tubular, clustered flowers are yellowish cream with reddish-brown spots. The inside of the flower petals are immaculate, unblemished. As mentioned, these small flowers put out an abundance of fragrance, which you may have already noticed.
The plant’s origin is eastern Asia, Japan and China. It was introduced in the US in 1830 as an ornamental.