Aronias: Native Shrubs for Fall Color
Let me be frank. When I chose to write about aronia, I figured it would be a simple subject. It’s a native shrub with brilliant fall color that’s easy to grow and makes a good substitute for the ubiquitous and invasive burning bush, Euonymus alatus. End of story — or so I thought. But as it turns out, there’s plenty more to know about aronias — from name confusions to reproductive mysteries to commercial berry production.
Let’s start with the basics. Aronia is a genus in the Rosaceae family, consisting of two species:
- Aronia arbutifolia, commonly known as red chokeberry, and
- Aronia melanocarpa, commonly known as black chokeberry.
These two species are quite similar in most respects; they are deciduous, multi-stemmed, medium-sized shrubs with glossy green leaves and white flat-topped flowers in spring. Both species produce fruits, and if you want to be botanically correct, you call them pomes, not berries (despite the common name). If you’re curious about the berry vs. pome distinction, you’ll find answers at Classifying Fruit. The red chokeberry has bright red fruit that is not a first choice of birds and tends to remain on the branches through much of the winter, while the black chokeberry has purplish-black fruits that ripen earlier and don’t last as long.
Both are tolerant of a wide variety of soils and are found in both wet and dry areas. though the red chokeberry is more often found in moist areas. Aronia arbutifolia is found primarily in the southeastern portion of the U.S., and is common in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and the Carolinas. Aronia melanocarpa is found primarily in the northeastern part of North America, though both species are found in the Appalachian Mountains and parts of the Northeast.
Both species are easy to grow and to transplant. While both are shrubs with similar height and spread, the red chokeberry is a bit more erect and slender in habit and tends to be bare of leaves around the base of the plant. Both tend to colonize by suckering, so they are quite useful for erosion control. You can cut off the suckers to keep them in bounds.
Aronias seem to demand massing, which will help disguise their bare spots, especially on the leggier red chokeberry. So you’ll want to group them, preferably in full sun, which will yield more flowers, the brightest red fall foliage, and the most fruit. You’ll still get fall color in partial shade, but it tends toward orange more than red. Because this shrub is easy to grow and free of major problems (well, the deer do like them), a number of horticulturists have suggested that the aronias are worthy of more garden use. In addition, both species are recommended for rain gardens by the Piedmont Virginia Native Plant Database, Albemarle.org/NativePlants, and for the margins of streams and ponds. In the wild, these plants are found in places as disparate as bogs and dry slopes. Talk about adaptable!
One further growing note: aronia is easy to propagate by seed, softwood cuttings, and division of suckering colonies. So if you want to expand a few shrubs into a large mass, you can do so without even buying more plants.
What’s it called again? Aronia or Photinia? Chokeberry or Chokecherry?
In a major turnabout from the norm, the chokeberries seem to have more scientific names than common names. For example, here’s the list of scientific synonyms for Aronia melanocarpa:
Aronia arbutifolia (L.) Pers. var. nigra (Willd.) Seymour
Aronia nigra (Willd.) Koehne
Photinia melanocarpa (Michx.) K.R. Robertson & Phipps.
Pyrus arbutifolia (L.) L. f. var. nigra Willd.
Pyrus melanocarpa (Michx.) Willd.
Sorbus melanocarpa (Michx.) Heynh.
“The fact that it has been classified in four genera reflects its history of taxonomic difficulty,” say Lois Berg Stack and Mark H. Brand, extension.umaine.edu/aronia. I don’t know if it qualifies as a taxonomic difficulty, but the fact that the genus is classified as Photinia by some scientists certainly leads to confusion with the once-popular red-tip photinia (Photinia fraseri), which, by the way, is NOT related to the aronias. I experienced the confusion firsthand when I went looking for aronias in the Albemarle County Piedmont Native Plant Database. No aronias in the A-section? That was a puzzle; it’s clearly a local native. But then I went looking in the P’s and sure enough, there were the red and black chokeberries listed as Photinia pyrifolia and Photinia melanocarpa. But wait, there’s more.
In regions where both species of Aronia are present, they have hybridized to form Aronia x prunifolia, treated by some scientists as a new species, Aronia prunifolia and commonly called purple chokeberry. And how did this natural hybridization occur? It’s all due to something called agamospermy (formation of viable seeds without cross pollination) with a possible role for apomixis. www.jstor.org/The Enigmatic Chokeberries. If you want to learn more about this mysterious process, you can read all about it in “Aronia: Native Shrub with Untapped Potential,” Arnold Arboretum, arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/article (2010).
There are other confusions, too. The common name chokeberry is easily confused with chokecherry, and yes, there is indeed a separate, unrelated plant known as chokecherry: Prunus virginiana. For more about this native, which has a number of similarities to the aronias, see the fact sheet at Va.Tech Dendrology. But we’re not quite done; there’s a Prunus virginiana var. melanocarpa — and its common name — I’m not making this up — is black chokecherry. As a couple of aronia experts drily put it, all of this “leads to confusion in commerce as well as in taxonomy.” So keep your wits about you when you go shopping for aronia.
Are the fruits really edible?
There’s a growing horticultural industry for the fruits of black chokeberry, so they must be edible, right? Well, not exactly. The taste is repeatedly described as astringent and bitter, so bad that those who try it tend to choke; hence, the name chokeberry. Despite the bad taste, the fruits are being grown for human consumption — in drinks, jams, jellies, wine, and other concoctions that disguise the taste. Why? Because black chokeberries are especially high in antioxidants, reportedly having more antioxidants than any other fruit grown in temperate regions.
Apparently the aronia berry industry originated in Russia and Eastern Europe as an effort to produce a local source of vitamin C. Aronia melanocarpa has been grown as a commercial berry crop in most Eastern European countries since the 1950s, and is “rapidly evolving” in the United States. Iowa St. Ext/Growing Aronia in Iowa. Aronia berries are one of the specialty crops being “trialed” at Maryland’s Wye Research and Education Center, Extension/Univ.of Maryland/alternative crops.
The black chokeberry — called “aronia berry” in this growing food industry — has been and continues to be the focus of a great deal of research into its impact on various diseases, and the results so far are looking good. Va.State & Va. Tech Coop. Ext.”What’s the Next Big Berry for Virginia? Aronia Berries (2013). Aronia berries are currently sold in frozen form by a number of online retailers. A search of the web revealed multiple sources for the plants that are best for growing your own berries, as well as many recipes for aronia berries, one of which is included in our Recipe of the Month, Aronia Berry Smoothie. So if you want an ornamental shrub with edible, healthful berries, consider the black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa).
Before we get to cultivars, I should mention again the so-called “purple chokeberry,” which is probably a “natural” hybrid of the two aronia species, though some argue that it is a separate species. Depending on your position on this taxonomy controversy, the purple chokeberry is known as either Aronia x prunifolia or Aronia x floribunda or Aronia prunifolia. This plant is an upright-rounded shrub with white flowers that mature to deep purple fruit. It grows to 12′ tall and wide and has bright red fall foliage.
Because of the boom in aronia berry growing, cultivars of Aronia melanocarpa are more common. An internet search revealed many online sources for these plants.
Aronia melanocarpa ‘Autumn Magic’ is a cultivar developed by the University of British Columbia. ‘Autumn Magic’ has bright red and purple foliage in fall, and, in an improvement over the species, has a more compact habit. Perhaps that is why it has been named a Plant of Merit by the Missouri Botanical Garden.
To be chosen for this honor, a plant must be
- Easy to grow and maintain
- Not known to be invasive in our area
- Resistant or tolerant to diseases and insects
- Has outstanding ornamental value
- Reasonably available to purchase
–Missouri Botanical Garden, http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/gardens-gardening/your-garden/help-for-the-home-gardener/plants-of-merit.aspx.
Iroquois Beauty™ (Aronia melanocarpa ‘Morton’) is a cultivar developed by the Morton Arboretum, and it is more compact and has more flowers than the species. www.mortonarb.org/news/five-shrubs-plant-fall.
Other cultivars of black chokeberries favored for production of aronia berries, include ‘McKenzie’ (collected in the former Soviet Union and introduced by Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Materials Center, Bismarck ND), ‘Nero’ (developed in Poland), and ‘Viking’ (developed in Finland, 1980). A couple of more compact cultivars of black chokeberries — “Low Scape Mound” and “Low Scape Hedger” were recently developed and patented by a horticulture professor at the University of Connecticut. UConn Today.
Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’ is commonly grown by the nursery industry for its ornamental values. In this cultivar, all the desirable traits of the species have been heightened: it has more blooms and fruits, very glossy, dark green leaves, and intense red fall color. No wonder so many experts sing the praises of this cultivar, and encourage gardeners to use it as a native substitute for the invasive Euonymus alata (burning bush).
Speaking of burning bush, I recently got rid of mine. Will I miss the fall colors? Yes, but not the ridiculous number of seedlings that pop up all over in their vicinity. Now I’m on the lookout for aronias in local nurseries. They are usually available, though perhaps not this late in the season. Many online nurseries offer aronias for sale. And I just might try growing some black chokeberries for their fruits — and their fall colors.
“Aronia: Native Shrubs with Untapped Potential,” Arnoldia, Arnold Arboretum (Mark Brand, 2010), arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu
“Aronia arbutifolia: Red Chokeberry,” University of Connecticut Plant Database, hort.uconn.edu/plants( Mark H. Brand)
“Aronia berries: Another superfruit for midwest growers?” Mich.State Extension (2016), www.canr.msu.edu/news