by Ann McKean
Aronia melanocarpa, common name black chokeberry (not chokecherry), can be a great addition to your Montana landscape. Typically growing 3’ to 6’ tall and wide and hardy to zone 3, this attractive deciduous shrub is native to sunny or partly sunny moist locations in the eastern and midwestern United States, but is extremely adaptable and tolerates clay, dry and alkaline soil, salt, and shade. This makes it an excellent choice for rain gardens as well as shrub borders. While its tendency to sucker makes it a good candidate for more natural plantings, our challenging growing conditions keep it in check with very little maintenance required.
Plants begin the growing season in spring with clusters of white star-shaped blossoms which are appreciated by pollinators. Leaves are glossy green in summer and vivid orange, red and burgundy in autumn. The self-fruitful chokeberry earns its name with plump, dark astringent pea sized fruits which are actually a pome and similar to apples. Primarily relied on by birds for late winter calories, the fruit makes a tasty jam or jelly, and is extremely high in anti-oxidants. When fully ripe, the fruit has as much sugar as grapes, and freezing reduces the astringency, which may explain why birds save it for later in the winter.
Besides jam and jelly, this superfood is commercially grown for baked goods, juice, tea, wine, barbecue sauce, sorbet, and even food coloring. While its high level of tannins makes it astringent, it has more antioxidants than any other temperate fruit, and it is a great addition to an orchard or forest garden. ‘Viking’ is one of the cultivars grown in commercial fruit production in the United States, Europe and Russia, and in ideal conditions can grow as large and live as long as a lilac. A member of the Rosaceae family, Aronia could potentially suffer from any of the ailments to which that family is subject, but is usually trouble free. While older cultivars such as ‘Autumn Magic’, ‘Iroquois Beauty’ (both 3’-4’ tall) and ‘Viking’ (3’-8’ tall), have been used in ornamental landscapes, there are several excellent newer cultivars which expand the planting possibilities for this easy shrub beyond the rain garden, wildlife garden or back of the border. ‘Low Scape Mound’ is a tidy 2’x2’ and fits neatly into any landscape planting plan singly or in a group. The newest cultivar, ‘Hedge Hog’, reaches only 8” to 14” tall but spreads up to 36”, making it a dense erosion resistant ground cover with strong three season interest and wildlife benefit.
The various cultivars of Aronia melanocarpa are attractive, beneficial easygoing additions that will fit into almost any garden or landscape. Why not add one to your garden this year!
Note: Aronia melanocarpa should not be confused with Prunus virginiana which is chokecherry. ‘Canada Red’ is the ubiquitous chokecherry tree cultivar found in ornamental plantings, and Prunus virginiana melanocarpa is the native black chokecherry traditionally used for yummy chokecherry syrup. Both of these plants grow much taller than chokeberries and have a toxic pit.