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Native Aronia for Beauty and Berries

11 Dec 2021 12:00 AM | Brenda Peshak

Wanting to replace that invasive, non-native burning bush or barberry?

Consider Aronia, it is a native shrub that does pretty much the same thing.

Aronia is a woody shrub in the rosacea family from the Eastern US.  It offers masses of white blossoms in spring.  Showy edible berries in late summer.   Fall colors: red, orange, or mahogany. Aronia occurs naturally in woodsy bogs and wetland areas.  It also grows well in normal garden conditions. For lots of berries give it sun and mulch to conserve moisture.

The shrubs tend to be upright and leggy.  Older shrubs will sprout suckers to form a grove.  If you don’t want to wait you can plant several at the same time.  In a mass the blossoms, berries, and fall foliage are striking. Older shrubs are quite drought-tolerant. If the shrub becomes crowded, cut about a third of the branches to the ground in order to leave the center open to sunlight. If you need to relocate the shrub, aronia is very forgiving.

Common name

Chokeberry it attests to the bitter taste of the berries.  They are so tart that eating them raw might make you choke! Which is why they are always made into pies, jams, jellies, and similar with lots of sugar!

Aronia has a long history in the U.S. Reportedly, Native Americans, used the berries to cure colds and other ailments. They also pounded the berries into dried meat as a preservative.  The resulting compound was lightweight and useful for journeys—as Lewis and Clark (may have) discovered. Sadly, as the Native Americans were pushed onto reservations, this knowledge died out and wasn’t rediscovered until the middle of the 20th Century. Now, aronia is known as “superberry” or a “superfood” for its antioxidant properties. Indeed, aronia has had a spectacular resurgence in the 21st Century.

Types of Aronia

There are main two types of aronia—melanocarpa and arbutifolia. Both are about the same size—4’-8’ tall and about half as wide. One is more decorative than the other. Aronia melanocarpa has dark, glossy berries, the ones most often cited for their health-giving properties. Nurseries have created numerous cultivars of melanocarpa, but they’re pretty much the same. If you prefer a smaller shrub, however, ‘Iroquois Beauty’ grows only 2-3’—but has the same blossom, fruit, and fall color as the taller species. Because melanocarpa has recently become a “trendy” food, articles abound and information may need to be taken with a grain of salt. Be that as it may, studies have proved the berries’ healthful properties—and the shrubs remain useful in the landscape.

Aronia arbutifolia, or red chokeberry, is usually considered the more decorative of the two. “Brilliantissima” offers glossy red berries that appear in clusters along the branches. Fruits are so dense that some think they’re seeing a bittersweet and not an aronia. While both varieties of aronia have good fall color, the foliage of ‘Brilliantissima’ turns a bright red (hence ‘red chokeberry’) that compares very favorably with burning bush. Both aronias have interesting bark in winter.

Where to buy

Local nurseries carry a limited number and selection, so online sources may be a better bet for a particular variety. Whatever you decide on, plant in as much sun as possible, water deeply and mulch the first year, then they should settle in.

Good for Birds

Birds love the plump berries of melanocarpa.  Birds tend to leave arbutifolia alone until later in the winter, which prolongs the fruit display. Both aronias are hardy to Zone 4, so they’re well suited to Iowa winters. Deer may browse the new growth, but a deterrent device will keep the damage to a minimum.

So plant a native that has multi-season interest and an ancient history in America!

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