Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Healthiest Fruit on the Planet Happens to be a U.S. Native

If I could plant only one woody plant in my garden, and I wanted one for year-round beauty, wildlife habitat, and ethnobotanical curiosity, the Aronia shrub would be a top choice. Tolerant of wet or dry soils, clay or sand, sun or even a little shade, this easy going native plant is beautiful and adaptable.

This genus is recently receiving international acclaim for its purported health benefits. The berries of the native Aronia melanocarpa (Black Chokeberry) apparently have the highest amount of antioxidants of any fruit yet measured. The USDA gave the Aronia berry an ORAC score (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity—a measure of total antioxidants) of over 16,000, almost triple the amount of antioxidants of other powerhouses like acai, blueberries, or blackberries. The intense concentration of flavonoids and anthocyanins in the Aronia berry helps the body fight off viruses, allergies, and carcinogens.

In addition to antioxidants, the berries have been proven to aid with diabetes, cardiovascular health, and the circulatory system. A recent study by the USDA showed that regular consumption of Aronia berry extracts actually slows the intake of insulin in the body, thus inhibiting weight gain. Theoretically, these findings suggest that Aronia might lead of lower risk of diabetes and heart disease.

[Image from Fine]

While Aronia was widely used by Native Americans for teas, medicines, and cooking, European settlers generally ignored this plant. Commonly called Chokeberry, the plants berries have a sharply sour and sometimes astringent taste. The unpleasantness of the raw fruit can be overcome by cooking or processing it into jams, salsas, or baked goods. The internet abounds with recipes that show how to tame the sharp taste of the raw berry.

Aronia cultivation is now growing in the Midwest. Farmers are taking advantage of this native plants’ easy culture to cater to an increasing demand for the healthful berries. The organic farm, Sawmill Hollow, in Iowa cultivates 13,000 chokeberries and hosts an annual Aronia Festival in September. The farmers allow locals to come and pick berries, and sell Aronia jams, syrups, barbecue sauces, and salsas. A recent article from the Des Moines Register features the farm.


I’ve longed loved the Aronia genus for its ornamental value long before I knew its health benefits. Because I plant in large masses of perennials or grasses, the Aronia is an ideal companion shrub. The plant’s loose, upright character allows you to underplant them with other ornamental native perennials or grasses. The plant does not shade out the ground plane. Since the plants are somewhat spindly, I’ve had good luck by massing five or ten of them together to form a bit of a thicket. They are deciduous, so consider placing them in front of a hedgerow, or in the back of your flower border for best effect.

And the effect is indeed wonderful. In late spring the glossy leaves are loaded with clusters of white flowers which pollinator’s love. By late summer, the flowers turn into showy red or black berries which will attract a wide range of local or migratory birds. The fall color is possibly the most outstanding feature of the plant. Most Aronias turn a brilliant red color with strong oranges, purples, and yellows.

 [Aronia arbutifolia 'Brilliantissima' in background shown at maturity for planting I designed while at OvS.]

My favorite ornamental cultivar is Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’. The upright habit, full blooms, bright red berries, and intense fall color are outstanding on this plant. If you want to grow the plant for its healthful berries, I would recommend Aronia melanocarpa ‘Viking’. This European cultivar is apparently one of the more productive black-berried plants. For a compact cultivar, try Aronia melanocarpa ‘Iroquois Beauty’, developed by the Morton Arboretum. The wonderful folks at Lazy S’s Farm sell a wide variety of Aronia cultivars mail order through the internet. Here is a link to that page.


  1. I suppose it's only a matter of days until Aronia extract starts showing up in all of our favorite processed foods!

  2. How very interesting. Here in the Black Hills we have Chokecherries growing everywhere. I guess they are not related, but being dark purple probabaly also are filled with antioxidants.

  3. Ha! I guessed right. I'm growing Aronia melanocarpa 'Elata' and there's been a good berry set. Can hardly wait for them to ripen and then see what kind of jam they make.

  4. Good work, Adrian. Let me know how the jam works out. The one time I ate one raw, I realized how it got its common name.

  5. Thomas,
    Great post on Aronia. I was considering using Aronia 'Brilliantissima' in a rain garden in a public park that is trying to attract birds and butterflies. I was dismayed to find that Dirr said that it is "called Chokeberry because of its astringent taste, even birds don't like it." What has been your experience with Aronia attracting birds? Any cultivars better than any others? Thanks.

  6. I had read that birds won't eat newly ripened fruit on Aronia, but will, once it has had a series of hard frosts/freezes......usually palatable in January. I am designing a buffer restoration along a river off the Chesapeake Bay and plant to use Aronia for the first time. I'm looking forward to it!

  7. If you want to read more about aronia, go to my blog at or visit my website at

  8. To learn more about aronia berries, visit my blog “Aronia in America” and my website “Everhart Horticulture Consulting.”


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