By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 1
The first spring after I moved to my farm 15-odd years ago, I went on a planting frenzy of epic proportions (I was in my twenties, after all), and my first priority was edible perennials. I bought just about every fruit bush or tree in bulk that I could get shipped bareroot and spent each spare minute outside with a shovel and a bucket of composted horse manure. My favorite wholesale catalog had little symbols next to each kind of tree or shrub that described what it was good for: a flower for spring buds, a red leaf for fall color, some symbol I don’t remember for being adaptable to various soil conditions, and a paw print for if it was edible for wildlife—all handy info since I didn’t know what most of them were. So I went ahead and ordered pretty much all of the ones that had the edible for wildlife symbol, assuming if it was edible for them it would be edible for me.
One of the plants that caught my eye was called Aronia melanocarpa, common name “black chokeberry.” I remember thinking, Why the heck would anyone want to eat something called “chokeberry”? But I bought 25 (the minimum order) anyway just because it had the edible for wildlife symbol. It had all the other nice desirable symbols as well; in addition to being edible, it was native to our region, very cold hardy, long-lived, easy to grow, and pretty, with white flowers in the spring and red foliage in the fall.
After doing some more research online, I learned that aronia berries (as the health food industry preferred to call them since most consumers, like me, would probably question their purchase of something called chokeberry) were not only edible to wildlife, but so incredibly high in antioxidant vitamins and phytonutrients that they were sure to be one of the next hip super-fruits! Needless to say, as a gardening and produce nerd, I was really excited about my first harvest.
Within a couple of years, my hedgerow of black chokeberries grew up tall and bushy, with big fat clusters of beautiful, dark purple-black berries in the late summer. They looked delicious, like shiny dark blueberries. I remember checking their color every day as they ripened so my first one would be a good one. One day they looked ready, and I was so excited. I popped one into my mouth, expecting it to be like a blueberry but a little bit more bitter. Chew, chew, and... “UCK!!!” I spit it out, horrified. Yuck!
I then understood the chokeberry name. That first fresh aronia berry was incredibly dry and astringent, inducing an instant cotton-mouth gag reflex. I took a deep breath and thought about how darned good for me they were, and then remembered reading that they’re much better cooked or blended into juices and smoothies and that they froze really well. As a veteran berry picker, I also really appreciated how incredibly easy and quick they were to harvest by the handful (I could get a gallon bucket of them in a half hour, practically without bending over). So I went ahead and harvested them into zip-top bags and threw them in the deep-freeze to revisit after their horrible taste left my mouth.
Sure enough, later that fall and winter I pulled that first crop of black chokeberries from the freezer and experimented. I combined them with other local dark fruit in jam (it’s now a staple that we call “Dark Jam”), sauce and smoothies and was surprised to find that they were not at all unpalatable. Substituting them for blueberries (which I also planted by the dozen but never could get to grow well on the farm) in muffins, pancakes, and quick breads was also totally fine. Over the years, I’ve also loved them in vinaigrettes, relishes, chutneys, and savory sauces for meat. (Continued below the break)
Aronia Berry Recipes
Even though almost nobody I knew had heard of aronia/black chokeberry when I first planted it 15 years ago, even though it’s native to the Midwest, it’s been well-known and widely grown as a commercial crop for juice and wine across Europe, especially Eastern Europe, and Russia for decades. Turns out, aronia was brought to Europe from the New World as a landscape plant hundreds of years ago, and it became naturalized across Eastern Europe and into Russia.
Plant breeders in Poland and Russia worked on hybridizing it for commercial use in the late 19th century, and came up with the two most widely grown commercial hybrids, Viking and Nero, which are now the most commonly grown hybrids here in the United States, too. Poland grows more aronia than anywhere else in the world, with its harvest mostly being pressed into juice as a blending ingredient for juice blends to boost their natural nutritional content and color.
Aronia might be mostly used in juice blends in Europe, but it is useful as so much more, and U.S. growers are experimenting with a wider range of products. The University of Wisconsin’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems named aronia as one of the most commercially promising uncommon fruit crops for Wisconsin in a 2008 sustainability study.
One farm, Bellbrook Berry Farm of Brooklyn, Wis., is not only growing organic aronia berries, but also processing, packaging and selling them as frozen berries, juice, extract and freeze-dried powder under their farm label, as well as propagating and selling plants to other farmers and home gardeners who want to grow their own. Many other Midwestern farmers have taken to growing aronia as part of a cooperative group, like the North American Aronia Co-op. The NAAC was founded in 2014 by a group of small farms in order to combine product, processing, and marketing; share knowledge as well as planting and harvesting equipment; and educate the public about aronia.
It’s important to note that the modern commercial hybrids from Poland that Bellbrook and other farmers currently raise produce fruit that is a bit mellower in flavor than the wild varieties I first grew. They are all attractive and virtually maintenance-free landscape plants. American plant breeders are working on new hybrids that taste even better and produce bigger fruit.
The reason you really want to eat them, though, is because they’re crazy good for you. Hailed by nutritionists as a miracle fruit, aronia berries boast more antioxidants than any other fruit, like a lot more; according to the USDA, they contain almost three times as many antioxidants as blueberries, raspberries or blackberries. Because of these findings, there have been tons of clinical studies on aronia’s effectiveness in counteracting a slew of various medical conditions, from cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes, ulcers, bacterial and viral infections…the list goes on and many findings are very promising.
As for me, after over a decade of watching many of my other original edible perennials not do so well, my aronia bushes just keep thriving and looking beautiful, providing me with a virtually effortless harvest year after year. Their super-nutrition is an added bonus. Everyone should plant a few bushes if they can! If you can’t grow aronia yourself, look for Bellbrook Berry Farm’s frozen berries at the Willy Street Co-op, Viroqua Food Co-op, and Kickapoo Exchange Natural Foods Co-op, or ask your favorite farmer to grow some for you—they’ll be glad they did.