The Russians aren’t coming: Tree cannot be sold by state nurseries |

The Russians aren’t coming: Tree cannot be sold by state nurseries

Greg Masse

Colorado nurseries will be prohibited from selling Russian olives and several lesser-known ornamental varieties to in-state customers beginning Jan. 1. In anticipation of the ban, most area nurseries in the Roaring Fork and Colorado river valleys already had stopped selling the trees.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture has forbidden the sale because of the Russian olive’s status as a noxious weed.

“We’ve sold them in the past, but we haven’t sold them in a while,” said Linda Rosette, co-owner of Centennial Gardens in Rifle.

Even though Russian olive trees are considered noxious weeds, people still ask for them because they’re fast-growing and hearty, they have attractive-looking silvery leaves and some people enjoy the fragrance exuded from their blossoms in spring, Rosette said.

But they have their bad points, as well, Rosette said.

“They’re very thorny and very invasive,” she said. “They’re not really a very good tree for a yard.”

Russian olives have overrun more than 9,000 acres of Colorado watersheds, threatening to crowd out other plant species favored by wildlife.

Eric Lane, state weed coordinator, said Russian olives have begun crowding out cottonwoods and box elders, which provide better nesting and more edible insect varieties for birds.

“It’s extremely competitive,” Lane said of the Russian olive. “It will out-compete the native vegetation.”

Nurseries are not expected to suffer economically from the ban, officials said, even though Russian olives traditionally have been good sellers for use in landscaping and as windbreaks.

“We stopped selling them in anticipation of this about two years ago,” said Jim Roman, the nursery manager for Planted Earth in Carbondale.

He said the tree is ideal for places such as Missouri Heights, but once its seeds get to streams and rivers, it can tend to take over.

“It’s a successful tree in the high, dry areas. It’s a tree that can survive the kind of drought we had this summer. Unfortunately, it’s very aggressive in the lower wetlands,” Roman said.

A prime example of a stretch of river taken over by the Russian olive is on the Colorado River between Silt and Rifle, he said.

Other attributes of the Russian olive that make it a popular tree are its wild look, its fast-growing nature and the fact that deer and elk tend to leave it alone, Roman said. But he added that the thorns on its branches can make the Russian olive a painful tree to handle.

“I remember when we did have them, you’d get scratches from them,” Roman said.

Several cities and counties, including Fort Collins, already have banned their sale.

“We used to sell hundreds of Russian olives, but we haven’t sold any for years because Fort Collins banned them,” said Gary Eastman, owner of Fort Collins Nursery.

He says nurseries won’t suffer from the ban because trees tend to be an impulse purchase by consumers.

“People come in, and if they see something pretty, they buy it,” Eastman said. “In most cases, there are good alternatives to banned species.”

One alternative recommended by the state Agriculture Department is the silver buffaloberry, which is almost identical in appearance to the Russian olive.

“I’ve been encouraging them for years,” Roman said. “With our water restrictions and climate change, I think it’s an excellent plant for the future.”

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