The Orientation of Russian Olive
Russian Olive, Elaeagnus angustifolia
This blog post is about orientation. I’m going to talk about who I am, where and who I’m from, and how that particular vantage point factors into all things I do as a plant medicine practitioner. And then I’m going to talk about Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) and dive deep into who she is and her particular orientation. But to do that I have to also recognize the orientation of all things New Mexico. My hope is that by reading this, you take away context in the deepest and most important ways about our landscape here in New Mexico and understand how land practices cannot be separated from people, politics, social policies and interpersonal dynamics.
I am a Rroma person. This matters because I believe we cannot separate ourselves and the stories that run through our veins with our relationships to plants and land. Rroma people as a whole left Northern India as early as 1500 years ago and as late as 800 years ago. Though there are many theories, no one knows for sure who we were when we lived in India or how long we were there. What we do know is that after we left India, we walked. Slowly, as we lived, traded, loved, danced, sang, and rested along the way. We walked to Persia; some of us went deeper into West Asia and North Africa. Others walked to Europe. From Europe we were exported to places like Australia when it was a penal colony or fled to places like New Mexico during the Spanish Inquisition. My personal family lineage is of being part of a tribe of Rroma blacksmiths who entered Southern Italy in the early 1500s. We came to the US in the early part of the 1900s to escape fascism. There’s a lot I am leaving out but those stories are for another time. What I am highlighting here is orientation.
Being of a people who don’t claim a collective homeland, who have a myriad of stories, languages, and histories that are simultaneously rooted somewhere, everywhere, and nowhere, I bring a particular flexible and adaptable perspective to plant medicine. We Rroma have always made use of whatever is around us. Our physical landscapes are continuously ever shifting and this reflects in all parts of our cultures, including our medicines.
I’ll come back to this.
Russian Olive, Elaeagnus angustifolia
For now, I will shift to the land of the Pueblo, Apache, Dine, Genezaro, and Comanche Nations, formerly the Northern Territory of Mexico, today known as New Mexico. New Mexico was claimed by the Spanish in 1598. It became a province of Mexico in 1821, a US territory in 1848, a US state in 1912. This matters. Change never happens without leaving stories behind. Grandparents whisper in the ears of their grandchildren and great grandchildren about what life was like before English, before Spanish, before wheat and white sugar and compulsory schooling and Catholicism. As the people were forced to adapt, so was the land.
When Spain, Mexico, and the US became the region’s political commanders, new orientations were successively imposed on New Mexico, filled with the ideologies, social mores, social structures, and political beliefs of those governing bodies. Anything that wasn’t in line or in support of these ‘external orientations’ was forcibly removed (i.e. Native Nations from ancestral regions), forcibly expelled (it was illegal in the US for Native people to observe their own religious and spiritual practices until 1978), or forcibly adapted (mandatory Indian boarding schools where students were separated from family and culture). Please understand that there are miles of nuance to each of these examples mentioned above, as these are complex and intricate songs of whole nations. I am deeply oversimplifying.
People often forget that humans are of the ecosystem, not separate from it. We were created in the same gorgeous and mysterious way a bee or a wildflower came into existence. The external orientations of Spain, Mexico and the US all have a mistaken notion that the earth and the bounty she offers is there to serve us, without any acts of reciprocity. This mistaken notion bleeds into all aspects of our lives, even into our practice with plant medicine.
Some reading this post will wonder why I am talking at length about me, my culture, the political existence of New Mexico, and the existence and mistreatment of the people indigenous to this land. Afterall, I said I was going to speak about Russian Olive. Why can’t I just get to the point already?!
Russian Olive, Elaeagnus angustifolia
But how are we to understand the story of Russian Olive without first understanding external orientations imposed on the Rio Grande Bosque–where the Russian Olive flourishes? It is estimated that humans have been living near the Bosque for at least 15,000 years. Yet only very recently has the Bosque been designated a ‘threatened habitat’. Throughout most of our years of existing together as people and land of the Southwest, humans have respected the intelligence and gifts the Bosque offered. Only recently has this relationship markedly changed. Political shifts to orientations that are removed from relational reciprocity and instead focused on profit and extraction have created circumstances where the Cottonwoods were cut down in large numbers for timber and the natural flooding cycle of the Rio Grande was interrupted and diverted.
Why does this matter? Without the annual flood water from the river, the land along the Bosque has dried considerably. The Yerba Mansa, a plant that thrives in boggy conditions and spreads by runners, hasn’t had adequate hydration to spread itself along the Cottonwood understory. Without the Yerba Mansa acting as a living mulch, the soil has dried even further. The annual floods were the primary way the Cottonwoods reseeded themselves so the remaining trees are no longer able to repopulate. And without the shade provided by the Cottonwoods…you guessed it. The soil of the Bosque has continued to dry out and become lifeless.
This is the landscape the Russian Olive dug her roots into when she was brought to New Mexico in the mid 1900s. The Bosque was like a case of male pattern baldness, complete with dry patches and sparse areas of growth, and Russian Olive was introduced as the miracle hair growth serum. In one light, this made sense, as Russian Olive nourishes land and offers many gifts to the animal kingdom. Still, most of the time, Russian Olive is complained about and vilified by communities who are professionally or culturally associated with the Bosque. Her epically gnarly root system, which is practically impossible to fully eradicate, makes it nearly impossible for other plants, including Cottonwoods, to establish themselves. Though I touch on the ecological-social relationship between Russian Olive, the land, other plants, and people in this blog post, I want to be clear that this is a very complex and nuanced discussion with many valid and variable perspectives to consider. I am writing this piece in the hopes that by sharing my orientation as a Rroma person and a champion of all things considered ‘undesirable’, you, the reader, will examine some overlooked nuance. That being said, I am aware that there is much more to this discussion, well beyond the scope of this post. Check out Dara’s book, The Ecology of Herbal Medicine, if you are curious about digging further and deeper on the subject.
What we are going to continue looking at in this blog post is who is Russian Olive. Let’s get to know her better. Who exactly is she? Where does she come from? What are some of her stories? Knowing this matters as we dig in further to her relationship with and orientation to the Bosque.
Russian Olive, Elaeagnus angustifolia
So let’s talk basics.
Russian Olive is a small tree with silver-green leaves, tiny yellow flowers, and thin, long thorns. She’s from West Asia and can be found growing from the Caucasus Mountains to Iran and Afghanistan. She’s also found in the southern parts of Russia and in parts of northern India. She grows in a variety of habitats, from dry deserts to river valleys and can tolerate a wide range of soil types and pH levels. She is well-suited to harsh climates and poor soils. She’s drought-resistant and hardy. Her deep root system makes her an excellent plant for erosion control and she has been used to stabilize soils in areas prone to landslides and desertification. Biggest bonus of all: she’s nitrogen fixing which basically means she helps nourish depleted topsoil. She’s adaptable yet solid. With these characteristics, Russian Olive quickly made a home in the Bosque because of imposed external orientations and the climate changes that have been the consequence.
According to historians, Russian Olive was introduced to West Asia during the reign of the Persian Empire by way of the Silk Road1. The tree was cultivated in early perennial food forests2, where she was valued for her medicinal properties, as well as for food, attracting beneficial insects, and fodder. Traditionally, Russian Olive has been used in various ways3. In ancient Iran, a fruit decoction of Russian olive was a go-to remedy for fever, jaundice, asthma, and for both rheumatoid6 and osteo arthritis; the flowers were used to treat tetanus. Iranian apothecaries used Russian Olive as a substitute for any anti-inflammatory and analgesic agent. In Turkey, her fruits were eaten an hour before the meal to assist with digestion. The leaves and fruit of the plant were generally used in West and Central Asia as diuretics and antipyretic agents. Her flower has been used in flavoring liqueurs.
From a western science view, the medicinal breakdown3 of Russian Olive is fierce. She contains high amounts of condensed tannins, flavonoids6, and essential fatty acids4, She is a source of β-sitosterol3 (especially in her pericarp and seed) and phenolic compounds5 (highest amounts in leaves). She contains calcium, potassium, and vitamins7 A, C, K, and B. How does this translate to how Russian Olive may support the human body? Studies have shown that these compounds and chemicals are potent anti-inflammatory agents, that they may lower blood pressure, promote prostate health, support digestion and overall immunity, as well as lower the risk of chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Russian Olive has been utilized in herbal medicine lineages in West Asia, as well as in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda. Her cooling properties can help to balance heat in the tissues and reduce inflammation in the body. Her bitter taste can help to stimulate digestion and improve liver function, while her astringent properties can help to tone the tissues and reduce excess moisture in the body.
This is the orientation of Russian Olive. She’s a giver.
Russian Olive, Elaeagnus angustifolia
Back to the Bosque:
When Russian Olive arrived in the Bosque in the mid 1900s, it was an attempt to fix issues of erosion and desertification, issues created by the external orientations of Spain, Mexico, and the US. Because the land and ecosystem of the Bosque is out of balance, Russian Olive was able to flourish and, for the most part, has been vilified and complained about for this successful adaptation. She’s been labeled ‘invasive’, and is now considered a noxious weed in New Mexico.
Many people in New Mexico have never bothered to get to know Russian Olive, treating her with a version of ‘stranger danger’. This makes sense given all the stories and histories I mention above, but I also think it’s been a missed opportunity given her orientation of generosity and abundance. Has the Russian Olive ‘taken over’ or has she simply responded to imposed flood control/water management policy and subsequent faulty actions? We love to find a ‘bad guy’. It makes us feel better and helps give us a target for our pent up anger, rage, and frustration. In the context of plants and land, the ‘bad guy’ is almost never the actual plant. The plant is often just a small piece of a bigger story about a problematic change in [political and cultural] orientation that affects all aspects of life, including which plants flourish and which die.
In the Bosque, the ‘bad guy’ is not Russian Olive.
Science is just starting to catch up to indigenous lineages that acknowledge plants flourish in places where humans and animals need them. Given the needs of the people of New Mexico, Russian Olive offers herself up in two main ways. First, the people of New Mexico suffer from high rates of diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol8, and chronic pain. Pharmaceutical drugs are strongly offered while, meanwhile, Russian Olive is literally knocking on people’s back doors. Second, the effects of climate change are very real. People regularly talk about less rain, more heat, and more wildfires in the Southwest and science agrees9. Russian Olive doesn’t need great soil, she can live on little water, her root system keeps dirt in the ground, she provides needed shade and habitat for animals, she produces medicines aplenty, and she can thrive pretty easily after a fire.
Russian Olive Medicinal Preparations
A big reason why I fell in love with plant medicine is because it reminds us that our strength as a species will always be intertwined with the gifts the earth offers. We cannot exist in our full beauty without the help of friends like Russian Olive. And to truly grasp all that the Earth offers, we need to be able to discern the accurate nature of her gifts from the external orientations imposed on them. This can be challenging, given the complexity of relationships.
Regarding the medicines of Russian Olive, I personally like using all aerial parts together, including bark, leaves, flowers, and fruits (including the seed). Doing this, I don’t have to overthink what medicinal components are most concentrated where. I get an even distribution of the good qualities she offers. I make an elixir, where I combine equal parts of an alcohol tincture and infused honey, both made separately from her fresh aerial parts. I do this to create a formula that utilizes both the medicinal qualities that are best absorbed through alcohol as well as the vitamins and minerals that absorb best through water-based mediums. The honey tastes sweet and delicate, like her flowers, and is a household favorite. Mixed together, the elixir may be an excellent complement for those seeking cardiovascular and pain support. I also infuse her dried aerial parts into ghee and oils to internally and externally nourish the skin and hydrate the gut, both which may support nervous system regulation and digestion.
As a Rroma person, I understand being misunderstood by external orientations. I understand being labeled ‘invasive’ and having the essence of my people’s collective existence questioned on every fundamental level. I also know that those that are deemed unworthy often generously contribute the most cherished gifts to humanity. None of us can argue this with respect to the gifts of music, dance, and art that the diasporic Rroma nations have given the world.
With the passage of time comes change that cannot be undone. Most people lament change, especially that which has been imposed upon them by external orientations. Yet profound and unexpected possibilities and beauty can arise from the new conditions that unfold. As I said in the beginning, my people have curated a deep relationship with adaptability. That perspective can be useful here when thinking about Russian Olive and her relationship with New Mexico and the Bosque. I don’t know if Russian Olive is here to stay in New Mexico. But I do know she came here as a good friend. She did not come empty handed.
In conclusion, orientation matters.
Without orientation, the stories of who, what, where, and why we stand where we do often get entirely erased and disappeared. Those stories in their true context matter always. When it comes to plant medicine in New Mexico and specifically in relation to our beloved Russian Olive, knowing the entire story helps us walk fully informed, fully equipped, and fully capable. Adaptability can serve us well in the current landscape of our changing climate. What would it be like to fully acknowledge the orientation of Russian Olive, to listen to what she is saying, understand the context in which she thrives, take her up on the gifts she is offering, and say thanks?
To learn more about invasive plant medicine, check out my upcoming class Invasive Plant Medicine here at Albuquerque Herbalism, Fall 2023. Also follow me on social media @sastimosholistichealth to get up to date information on course offerings, as well as to book a plant medicine consult or purchase a custom herbal formula.
As always, I dedicate this post to the trees, who have been my constant.
Materials and references I utilized in writing this post:
Lad, V. (1998). The complete book of Ayurvedic home remedies. Harmony.
Stepp, J. R. (2004). The role of weeds as sources of pharmaceuticals. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 92(2–3), 163–166. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2004.03.002
University of New Mexico Climate Assessment Program. (2018). New Mexico Climate Change Outlook.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). (2021). Climate at a Glance: Statewide Time Series.