The vast majority of the species are native to temperate and subtropical regions of Asia. Elaeagnus triflora extends from Asia south into northeastern Australia, while E. commutata is native to North America, and Elaeagnus philippinensis is native to the Philippines. One of the Asian species, E. angustifolia, may also be native in southeasternmost Europe, though it may instead be an early human introduction there. Also, several Asiatic species of Elaeagnus have become established as introduced species in North America, with some of these species being considered invasive, or even designated as noxious, in portions of the United States.
Elaeagnus plants are deciduous or evergreenshrubs or small trees. The alternate leaves and the shoots are usually covered with tiny silvery to brownish scales, giving the plants a whitish to grey-brown colour from a distance. The flowers are small, with a four-lobed calyx and no petals; they are often fragrant. The fruit is a fleshy drupe containing a single seed; it is edible in many species. Several species are cultivated for their fruit, including E. angustifolia, E. umbellata and E. multiflora (gumi).
Elaeagnus species are widely cultivated for their showy, often variegated, foliage, and numerous cultivars and hybrids have been developed.
Many Elaeagnus species harbor nitrogen fixing organisms in their roots, and are therefore able to grow well in low-nitrogen soil. This ability results in multiple ecological consequences where these Elaeagnus species are present:
Because they increase fixed nitrogen levels in the soil, they can alter habitats by enabling species which require more fixed nitrogen to be more competitive, replacing other species which are themselves tolerant of soils with low levels of fixed nitrogen.
The extra availability of fixed nitrogen in the plant makes its leaves more nutritious.
^Fordham, Ingrid M.; Clevidence, Beverly A; Wiley, Eugene R.; Zimmerman, Richard H. (2001). "Fruit of autumn olive : A rich source of lycopene". HortScience36 (6): 1136–7. ISSN0018-5345.
^Wang, Shiow; Bowman, Linda; Ding, Min (2007). "Variations in Free Radical Scavenging Capacity and Antiproliferative Activity Among Different Genotypes of Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)". Planta Medica73 (5): 468–77. doi:10.1055/s-2007-967175. PMID17566149.