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Russian Olive Will Poke Your Eye Out

By Megan Gross, Horticulture/Natural Resources Extension Agent, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension

Willow branches make good swords, especially when you’re up against a wild pack of pint-sized pirates. They had fancy balloon swords, you see, and fancy balloon parrots. I, on the other hand, had no such weaponry and was forced to improvise or die. A six-year-old needs few words to articulate such an ultimatum: "GET herrrrrrr!"

Hot on my heels and not keen to my plan, they followed me right to the willow tree, which was flanked on either side by Russian olives. I snapped a sucker from a branch and spun back to face-off. "Hi-Ya!" was all I could come up with for a battle cry. Pirate, karate master, whatever.

The most disturbing thing that day, oddly enough, was not that I was being attacked by a band of balloon fisted pirates. The part I can’t shake was the fact that those lousy, thorn-ridden Russian olives were encroaching on my only hope for salvation: the willow.

Because I don’t have space to say it kindly, I’ll state it as plainly as a six-year-old’s ultimatum: don’t plant Russian olives or else. Or else you’ll be planting a tree that makes fruits fed upon by birds. These well-fed birds will then fly over a watershed area and release the undigested seed through their back ends. These seeds will sprout new Russian olive trees that will spread by root stock and by seed. These new plants will out-compete our native plants and create a dense, thorny thicket through which I wouldn’t send my worst pirate enemy. And thorny thickets make lousy swords.

The fact that Russian olive is disrupting our watershed is no secret, and I haven’t the foggiest idea why it’s still legal for garden centers to sell it. I suppose these things take time. And it takes more time for people to realize why we shouldn’t be encouraging its spread. It’s a fast-grower, after all, and does well under the poorest of landscape conditions. Besides, the silvery leaves sure are pretty.

Although there is no direct substitute for this large, silvery leafed tree, make it your responsibility to use plant material that is on good terms with our ecosystem. Several local garden centers have so much from which to choose. There’s narrowleaf cottonwood, little leaf linden, green ash and aspen. Chokecherry, sour cherry, crabapple and plum. If you would like more specific advice on the best plant for your location, contact your local Extension Office. They can point you in the right direction.

Photograph of Russian Olive courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010