If you are out front of the latest health trends you may have heard already about the Aronia, or Chokeberry. These small black berries are being widely promoted for their powerful antioxidant content, and the price in stores for bottles of juice is steep. This little-known berry is packed with health – just one ounce has 10% of your daily Vitamin C, with zero fat and low carbs for a fruit. But it’s the high levels of anthocyanins that are winning over legions of health-conscious eaters. These give the berry their near-black color, but more importantly they are powerful antioxidants, that block potentially harmful ‘free radicals’. Anthocyanins can protect our bodies from a broad range of health risks, particularly heart health. They also stimulate your immune system and even show some preliminary potential to reduce cancer risks. As well, other compounds in Aronia, such as ellagic acid and myricetin, have shown antiviral properties – something we all need. No wonder those expensive little bottles are flying off the shelves.
Aronia is Easy to Grow at Home, and Attractive Too
What many people don’t realize is that these berries are incredibly easy to grow at home across a wide part of the country, from chilly zone 3 all the way to warm zone 8. This shrub is attractive, with white flowers in spring and striking fall colors. It typically grows just 4 or 5 feet tall and it will fit into any garden. You can harvest your own berries in fall, and turn them into syrups and preserves, stocking up on all that good health for very little work and even less cost. Plus, you will know exactly what you are eating, since supplement are sold unregulated, and can be low in the very compounds you need.
Unknown in Its Own Country
The story of Aronia is a curious one, because this plant is native to large parts of America, yet it was in Eastern Europe and Russia that its health-giving properties were first recognized. This shrub grows wild in the east, all the way from Newfoundland to Minnesota, and across a broad area south into Georgia. Europeans have always been intrigued by North American plants, and Aronia was introduced there in the 19th century. By the early 20th century its potential as a berry crop was being explored, especially in Scandinavia, Poland, and Russia.
A Russian botanist and plant breeder called Ivan Vladimirovich Michurin became interested in it, and in the wake of the Russian Revolution there was a big push for better health and new foods. It seems that Michurin accidentally (or deliberately) crossed his Aronia with mountain-ash (Sorbus), which is closely related to it. The resulting plant had big, juicy berries, and it was soon being widely grown and drunk behind the Iron Curtain as a vitamin drink. From there is spread through Eastern Europe and into Scandinavia, where several improved forms, with large berries and heavy crops, have been developed. Today these plants that are coming back to America and bringing their healthy juice with them.
How to Eat Aronia
The alternative name for Aronia is Chokeberry, and that name tells us what we find out soon enough when we pop one of these juicy berries into our mouths. High levels of tannic acids make this berry, when eaten raw, very astringent, leaving your mouth dry and sandpapery. Americans are well-known for needing to sweeten everything, and most of us don’t have the European love for bitter and sour foods. You may find you quickly develop a taste for them, and come to enjoy them in yoghurt, or on cereal. Most people use the berries in baking, adding them to muffins and pies. They also make great jams and preserves, but the most popular thing is to make juice, and then mix it with other juices – apple is a great companion fruit – and enjoy it that way.
Growing Aronia in Your Garden
For the biggest crop a position in full sun is best, but Aronia will also grow well in partial shade, and in full dappled shade too. It thrives in wet soils, so don’t plant it in dry, sandy places, although after some initial nurturing established plants will take a little dryness without trouble. When grown for its berries regular pruning is best, but otherwise it can be left to grow naturally, and pests or diseases hardly ever bother it. Even if you don’t have a ‘green thumb’ you will have no trouble with this plant. It can even be grown in planters and pots if you don’t have much garden space.
Popular Varieties to Grow
This is not the place to get into the complexities of separating the different kinds of Aronia, a task that has troubled experts for many years. Let’s just say that there are varieties with both red and black berries, but they all have strong fall colors, come in a range of sizes, and make attractive garden shrubs. Here is a selection of some of the best – you can choose whether you want to emphasize berry production, or pay more attention to their ornamental value
Viking Aronia Chokeberry – x Sorbaronia mitschurinii is the most accurate name for this plant, which is the hybrid created by Michurin. If you want big crops of huge berries, to give you lots of juice, then this is the variety for you. Bred in Finland, where Aronia is also well-known and popular, it makes a rounded bush up to 6 feet tall, with fall colors of red, orange and gold. The berries have red flesh and black skin, and they look like small cherries. From late August to the end of September you will be harvesting, and they can be processed or dried to use all through the winter, when our systems need help the most to stay healthy.
Autumn Magic Aronia – This black chokeberry has exceptional fall colors of rich reds and purples that will brighten your garden, and it becomes a broad bush up to 6 feet tall. The glossy leaves are always attractive, and it also produces a big crop of large, high-quality berries. It’s the perfect choice if you want to maximize both beauty and usefulness from your Aronia bushes.
Low Scape Mound® Aronia – this form of Aronia melanocarpa, was developed at the University of Connecticut as an ornamental ground cover shrub, and for that it is excellent. It only grows 1 or 2 feet tall, but plants can be up to 4 feet wide. It’s is perfect along a path in a natural area, or in the front of your beds anywhere in your garden. Besides its great fall colors – mostly deep oranges and reds – it produces a berry crop which will not be so big, but it does give you a chance to enjoy some juice, or make some jam.
Red Chokeberry – Aronia arbutifolia. This shrub has red berries, but they are nearly as healthy, and the plant is very ornamental, making a symphony in red, with its bright berries and brilliant red fall leaves. The variety called ‘Brilliantissima’ is exceptionally decorative, and highly recommended for both beauty and its big berry crop.