There is a definite change in the air here in Tidewater. Not only is it cooler and less humid, but there is a change in the way things smell, I even caught whiff of wood smoke coming from someone's fire pit tonight. Frequently as you are strolling through the neighborhood or driving around town, you will come across a very sweet, sticky smell - the unmistakable odor of the Eleagnus bloom. It is hard to describe just how overly sweet this smell is, but it always triggers a memory for me. The smell reminds me of an Easter nearly 40 years ago when I ate way too many jelly beans, not those minuscule Jelly Bellies, but the larger old-fashioned variety made by Brachs. The flower of the Eleagnus smells like those jelly beans (in particular, the pink ones) that I nearly made myself sick with so long ago, and to this day causes me a twinge of nausea.
There are many species of Eleagnus, including several that are on invasive plant lists, but the most common varieties seen in this area, and the ones currently sweetening the air - are Eleagnus x ebbingei and E. pungens. Both of these evergreens grow extremely quick providing fast screening and hedges. They are also remarkably drought and salt tolerant making a great seashore plant. One of the several common names of this plant is Silverberry, and this must be a reference to its silvery foliage. There are also brown spots on the leaves and stems which are often mistakenly thought a fungus. Eleagnus is sometimes called Russian Olive, but one of my Russian customers indignantly said she had never seen any in the Motherland.
The flowers begin blooming in the fall (although they seem a little early to me this year) and can continue into late December. They produce fruits that swell and ripen in winter and resemble small brown olives that eventually turn red and provide needed late winter nourishment for some birds. If you were hungry enough, you could eat them too, in fact there are other species of Eleagnus grown specifically for the edible fruit. In this area they are planted more for their ease of growth and are often used by the highway departments for stabilizing embankments and for screening. There was once a locally famous patch in the median of Interstate 64 east of Williamsburg that had to be removed. It seemed the Cedar Waxwings could not resist the lure of the fermenting fruit and many impaired birds were unable to maneuver the gauntlet of busy traffic after their snack.
I prefer the Eleagnus x ebbingei because it lacks the thorns of E. pungens. There are also several interesting variegated cultivars like E. pungens 'Hosoba Fukurin'.
This is E. pungens 'Clemson Variegated'. I really like variegation when it appears tie-dyed.
The last variety is Eleagnus x ebbingei 'Gilt Edge' which we have planted at work in a very neglected spot where it thrives. I also planted some of these at the neighborhood dog park when it opened knowing how tough they are. However, nothing I planted including the 'Gilt Edge' survived the multiple daily "waterings" from the dogs.