“What are those?” my neighbor asked, pointing to some shrubs, their leggy stems masked by bushy perennials in my border.
“They’re aronias,” I replied.
“Erroneous. You mean, they’re a mistake?”
“Not at all,” I assured her, and went on to explain the good points of red chokeberry or Aronia arbutifolia. A native plant sometimes confused with chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), it has white puffy flower clusters in spring, followed by bright red berries. The glossy green leaves turn a gorgeous red in fall.
Even its less showy cousin black chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa, with blue-black fruits, has a nice wine-red fall color. And now, suddenly, black chokeberry is the hot berry to grow. That inky color is a sign of antioxidant levels that are, as measured by the Department of Agriculture, through the roof — higher even than those of blueberries, cranberries and black currants. According to the site www.aroniaberry.org, their future as a commercial crop is assured.
These “superfruits” do, however, have one serious defect. “They’re horrendous-tasting,” says Lee Reich, author of “Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.” “They’re tart and bitter. That’s not a good combination. Cranberries are delectable compared to aronias.”
Not surprisingly, aronia promoters avoid calling them chokeberries, the name bestowed by European settlers who first sampled them — and gagged. But that’s not the point. Sufficiently sweetened, they can be made into jam, juice, wine, flavoring or coloring agents and numerous other products long ago cooked up by Eastern Europeans for the highly profitable health food trade.
I suppose aronia juice is better in a yogurt smoothie than artificial purple dye, but I’m not impressed by the hype. It smacks of what Michael Pollan called “nutritionalism” in his book “In Defense of Food,” seeing foods in terms of their isolated (and marketable) components, rather than the totality of their effect on us, including the pleasure we take in eating them. Sure, I could eat an aronia product if enough sugar had been added, but — oh no! — what would that do to my glycemic index?
Birds don’t like aronia berries very much either. With the exception of grouse, they ignore them in favor of more palatable fare, at least until there’s nothing better to eat in the winter landscape. In their favor, aronias will persist into January and possibly beyond, clinging to the branches in a raisin-like state. For this reason aronias are seen as valuable bird plants, providing emergency stores after other food has been passed by.
For myself, I will continue to plant these easy-to-grow natives for their fall spectacle, and someday I might even eat one of their fruits — when it’s the last berry on Earth.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”