Aronia: growing & harvesting chokeberries

Regina
Regina
Regina
Regina

I studied horticultural sciences at university and in my free time you can find me in my own patch of land, growing anything with roots. I am particularly passionate about self-sufficiency and seasonal food.

Favourite fruit: quince, cornelian cherry and blueberries
Favourite vegetables: peas, tomatoes and garlic

The chokeberry is a popular superfood that you can grow in your own garden. In this guide, we will give our top tips on where to plant and how to cultivate aronias.

Bunches of ripe chokeberries on an aronia bush
Chokeberry bushes regularly bear an abundance of fruit, which birds like to eat too [Photo: Melica/ Shutterstock.com]

Health-conscious people are familiar with the chokeberry as a superfood in the form of juices or powder from health food shops and organic supermarkets. But it is also possible to grow your own wholesome chokeberries at home, with plenty of fruit to harvest. Here we will introduce you to this robust shrub and tell you all about planting, harvesting, and using the chokeberry.

Aronia: origin and characteristics

The chokeberry (Aronia) originally comes from North America and belongs to the rose family (Rosaceae). Around 1900, the vitamin-rich, healthy fruit was first improved for commercial fruit cultivation in Eastern Europe and planted in orchards. In recent years, the chokeberry has also been increasingly cultivated in Europe for pharmaceutical purposes and for the health food market. It is closely related to our native rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), so closely that they can even be cross-bred together. Three species belong to the genus Aronia: the red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) and the purple chokeberry (Aronia x prunifolia), which is the result of a cross between the red and black species. To find out more, read our article on chokeberry species and their varieties.

The chokeberry is a moisture-loving and very hardy shrub with dense, overhanging branches. It can spread up to two metres wide and two metres high. The leaves of the chokeberry are oval and glossy green during the growing season and look stunning in autumn when the foliage turns wine-red. In May, the white and pale-pink chokeberry flowers begin to bloom in clusters and attract lots of bees.

These flowers develop into small fruits that look very much like rowan berries or mini apples (Malus). The name “chokeberry” is, botanically speaking, incorrect because these black “berries” are in fact aggregate fruits. However, the term “berry” has become common in everyday language. The chokeberry’s purplish-black fruits are ready to harvest from mid-August. They weigh 1 to 1.5g each and have a deep red-purple flesh.

A chokeberry bush in bloom
The chokeberry’s white flowers bloom in clusters [Photo: LianeM/ Shutterstock.com]

The taste of chokeberry is bitter-sweet and not to everyone’s taste, which is why although the aronia berries can be eaten raw, they are more commonly found in a processed form. In a good year, the prolific chokeberry shrub can produce 10 to 17kg of fruit, which birds love to eat too.

Planting aronia: where and how

Chokeberry bushes are very adaptable but will not thrive in dry or lime-rich soil. The optimal location for chokeberries is in full to partial sun where the soil retains water well and is humus-rich, moderately dense to slightly sandy and slightly acidic. The pH value should be between 5.8 and 6.5. Chokeberries form a shallow, compact root system, which is why the quality of the topsoil is of the most importance for them. To improve soil that is either too heavy and clayey or too light and sandy, mix in a high-quality potting soil, such as our Plantura Organic Tomato & Vegetable Compost. The high content of organic matter in our compost increases the water storing capacity of your soil and improves its structure, while its high level of potassium is perfectly suited for chokeberries.

Plantura Organic Vegetable Compost
Plantura Organic Vegetable Compost

Peat-free & environmentally-friendly: for tomatoes & all other vegetables, ensures a rich & aromatic harvest, child & pet friendly

As a moderately tall growing shrub, chokeberries are ideal as underplanting around tall trees, both in groups or individually and in garden beds or large pots. They are especially beneficial ecologically in wild fruit hedges, as their flowers and fruits provide a valuable food source for myriad insects and birds. It is best to plant the shrubs between October and the end of November, at the beginning of the dormant winter period. This way, roots have a chance to develop first to supply the new leaves with water and nutrients the following spring. Alternatively, planting can be done in early spring – at the beginning of March. In summer, water your chokeberries regularly until they have established a good root system. Applying a layer of mulch around the plants also helps to retain water and keep the pH value slightly acidic.

Keep a plant spacing of 1 to 1.5m between each shrub to create a hedge or similar dense group arrangements and 3 to 4m if in a standalone position. Loosen the soil well and work in some compost if necessary. Then dig a hole and place the aronia tree in it. To promote branching at the base of the plant, you can plant the chokeberry a little deeper with some of the trunk underground.

Planting chokeberries in a pot: Choose a pot with a volume of at least 20 litres, that is wider rather than deep to accommodate the aronia’s shallow root system. To prevent waterlogging, place a 5 cm thick drainage layer of expanded clay, sand, and gravel in the bottom of the pot. Plant the chokeberry on top in a high-quality compost based potting soil; this promotes root growth by releasing what are called humic substances. About every two to three years in spring, repot your aronia in a larger container with fresh soil. Spread a layer of mulch on the surface of the soil to maintain moisture and a low pH value.

Chokeberry foliage turning red in autumn
Chokeberries are best planted in late autumn before the first frost [Photo: Mycleverway/ Shutterstock.com]

Tip: The flowers appear before the Ice Saints (mid-May) and are very sensitive to frost. However, a chokeberry flowers for two whole weeks, which is why it can tolerate late frost and is also suitable for locations with chilly springs.

Summary for planting a chokeberry:

  • Position: full sun to partial shade
  • Soil: medium to slightly sandy, good water retention, humus rich with slightly acidic pH value
  • Time: October to end of November or beginning of March
  • Plant spacing: 1-1.5m for hedges and groups; 3-4m for individual shrubs
  • In pots: large planter (min. 20l) with drainage layer

Top chokeberry care tips

With just a little care, the undemanding chokeberry will reward you with an abundance of flowers and berries. One of the most important things to remember is that newly planted aronia shrubs do not tolerate competition, so weed around them regularly. Below you will find more of our top tips on aronia.

Fertilising and watering chokeberries

Make sure to water your aronia regularly during the first two years after planting, until it is well established. You only need to water older plants during dry periods in spring and summer to support abundant flowering and yield. For chokeberry plants in pots, however, water the shrubs regularly, especially on hot summer days.

Chokeberries have a moderate nutrient requirement which needs to be replenished regularly. This is particularly important for chokeberries in pots because there is a limited supply of soil and nutrients. The ideal time for fertilising is between leaf sprouting and flowering, so between April and May. A natural slow-release fertiliser, such as our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food, can be worked into the surface of the garden bed or added to the soil when repotting.

Plantura All Purpose Plant Food
Plantura All Purpose Plant Food

With a long-lasting effect, for healthy soil, child & pet friendly

Pruning chokeberries

Aronia plants tolerate pruning well. Most blossoms and fruits are formed on 5 to 6 year old branches, older branches bear considerably less. So, prune back 7 to 8 year old branches in the winter months together with too weak, thin new branches – similar to blackcurrants (Ribes nigrum). Ideally, a chokeberry bush should have an even balance of 1 to 6 year old branches. This way, the shrub will continue to produce an abundance of fruit year after year.

Chokeberry pests and diseases

Chokeberries are robust shrubs that rarely suffer from diseases. Nevertheless, the menacing fire blight (Erwinia amylovora), which you are required to notify the relevant authorities about, and powdery mildew (Erysiphaceae) can still occur on chokeberry bushes. Winter moths (Operophtera) and apple fruit moths (Argyresthia conjugella) are occasionally observed as pests. The biggest threats to the chokeberry’s fruit crop is an infestation with the spotted wing drosophilia (Drosophila suzukii) and also bird damage.

Aronia propagation

Chokeberry can be propagated from seed, cuttings and runners. Only the variety ‘Hugin’ can be propagated by seed, while all other varieties can only be propagated vegetatively. Chokeberry seeds are cold germinators that only germinate after a long period of cold weather.

Chokeberries naturally form runners, which are easy to propagate. Simply cut the runners off from the mother plant with a spade and plant in a new location.

For propagation through cuttings, take 10cm long cuttings from young, still soft wood shoot tips in summer. Fill a seed pot with a mixture of sand and low-nutrient potting soil. Remove the leaves from the cuttings leaving just the tip and insert deep into the moistened soil mixture. Place the pot in a bright spot with a temperature of 15 to 20°C and keep moist. After a few weeks they will take root. Plant out in the autumn using our instructions above.

Chokeberries are harvested in bunches
From August onwards, the chokeberries are ready to harvest in bunches from the bush [Photo: bubutu/ Shutterstock.com]

Harvesting chokeberries: when and how

Depending on the variety, harvest time begins in early to mid-August and lasts for about three weeks. But you have to be quick when harvesting, because birds can devour entire bushes in no time! Use secateurs to cut off the aronia fruits in whole bunches, wash them and then pluck the chokeberries from the stems. As the juice stains so strongly, it is best to wear gloves. Few people enjoy the bitter-sweet fruits in their raw state, which is why the fresh berries are usually cooked or processed in some way.

How to use and store chokeberries

Chokeberries remain firm and hard-skinned even when fully ripe. They keep in the refrigerator at 0 to 2 °C for up to four months or if frozen, whole fruits can be stored for years and processed when required. Chokeberry juice can be pressed from the wholesome fruits. This juice has a deep pigment making it ideal to add to ice cream, smoothies, pale juices, cocktails and liqueurs for extra colour. The aromatic taste flourishes in chokeberry jams and jellies, but also in baking.

You can also dry the aronia fruits slowly at temperatures of 50 to 60°C and preserve most of their healthy nutrients. Chokeberries are packed full of vitamin C (137mg per 100g fresh fruit), as well as calcium and potassium. The polyphenol pigments – called anthocyanins – have an antioxidant effect and may reduce the risk of cancer. In traditional medicine, aronia juice is used to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Fresh chokeberries and dark purple juice
Chokeberries are most commonly made into juice or jams [Photo: Melica/ Shutterstock.com]

Are chokeberries poisonous?

Ripe chokeberries are edible, both cooked and raw, and completely harmless to humans and animals. The seeds in the aronia fruit, however, do contain – like apples and almonds – small amounts of amygdalin. When the seeds are bitten, the substance is released and converted into highly toxic prussic acid in the body. Though, seeds that are swallowed undamaged pass safely through the digestive tract without amygdalin being released. 100g of almonds contain about twice the amount of amygdalin than is found in 100g of fresh aronia berries. Moreover, it is hardly possible to bite all the seeds, let alone consume such an amount of the very bitter fruit. If the seeds are heated, a large part of the already low content of amygdalin breaks down. All processed chokeberry products are therefore completely safe to enjoy.

Do you know much about hawthorn (Crataegus)? The Crataegus genus is made up of many ecologically beneficial shrubs that are essential for nourishing our native birds and bees with blossoms and fruits in autumn.

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