Elaeagnus angustifolia was described as Zizyphus cappadocica by John Gerard, and was grown by John Parkinson by 1633 and was also grown in Germany in 1736. It is now widely grown across southern and central Europe as a drought-resistant ornamental plant for its scented flowers, edible fruit, attractive yellow foliage, and black bark.
The species was introduced into North America in the late 19th century, and subsequently escaped cultivation, because its fruits, which seldom ripen in England, are relished by birds which disperse the seeds. Russian olive is considered to be an invasive species in many places in the United States because it thrives on poor soil, has low seedling mortality rates, matures in a few years, and outcompetes wild native vegetation. It often invades riparian habitats where overstory cottonwoods have died.