Aronia (Photinia melanocarpa, formerly Aronia melanocarpa) is a deciduous woody shrub in the Rosaceae family that is gaining popularity in the home garden. It is native to the eastern United States and is hardy to USDA Hardiness Zone 3. Its popularity stems from increased interest in phytonutrients or plant compounds that have beneficial effects on human health. Aronia is rich in antioxidants, a chemical known to block free radicals that may damage cells and lead to cancer. Gardeners should be careful not to confuse aronia, which is often referred to as chokeberry, with chokecherry (Prunus virginiana). While the fruits of the chokecherry are edible, its leaves, stems, and seeds contain toxic amounts of hydrocyanic (prussic) acid.
Aronia can be grown in full sun to partial shade. However, full sun is recommended for best crop yields and uniform fruit ripening. Aronia is adapted to a wide range of soils. Plants perform best in well-drained soils. However, plants tolerate poorly drained and excessively drained soils. They do not require overly fertile soils. Slightly acidic soils with an organic matter content of two to three percent are preferred. Aronia has few major pest problems. Because of the plant’s adaptability and lack of serious pests, aronia is relatively easy to grow for beginning gardeners or for those with poor growing conditions.
Aronia produces loose clusters of 10 to 15 berries at the ends of shoots. Individual berries are firm and about one-quarter inch in diameter. (Although the fruits are commonly referred to as a berry, they are actually a pome. Aronia is closely related to the apple.) The fruit ripen from late August through mid-September. The fruit tend to hang well on the plant allowing for a broad harvest window of up to four to six weeks. The fruit harvest is generally based on the sugar content of the fruit. The fruit are edible when their sugar content reaches 18%. However, the sugar content can reach as high as 22 to 24%. Fruits are extremely astringent due to their high tannin levels but mellow out considerably when processed for juice, jam, or other products. Aronia is self-fruitful and does not require a pollinator for fertilization and fruit set. Therefore, only one cultivar is required for fruit production. Like other fruit crops, aronia develops its next season’s fruit buds while maturing its current season’s crop; hence a gardener is always managing two crops at once.
Aronia plants are propagated by tissue culture and typically sold in either 3 gallon or 5 gallon nursery containers. Plants will need to be watered during the first year or two of establishment and then only during very dry periods. Aronia plants should flower and begin to produce by the second year under ideal conditions. Plants may be pruned annually to maintain a stature as small as 3 feet in diameter or left to grow nearly 8 feet wide and tall. Canes reach maximum productivity at 3 years of age and become less productive with increasing age. Regular pruning will keep plants a manageable size and maintain productivity. Plants should be pruned during late winter or early spring before bud break by making a cut at the base of the crown. Remove 5-year-old canes to maintain maximum fruit production and continuously rejuvenate plants. No additional fruit thinning is necessary. Alternatively, the entire plant may be cut back to the ground every ten years and reestablished although no fruit will be produced for at least two years following this method.
Many cultivars of aronia are available. Some cultivars like 'Nero,' 'Viking,' and 'Galicjanka' are actually hybrids of aronia and mountain ash. These hybrids are excellent cultivars for fruit production as they produce nice, large berries. Other cultivars, like 'Autumn Magic' and Iroquois Beauty™ ('Morton'), produce small fruit and are best used for ornamental purposes. 'McKenzie' is often used in windbreaks and can be found along the interstate highways across Iowa.
While aronia has few serious pest problems, it is not pest free. Deer, birds, rabbits, and small rodents may be a problem. While aronia does release a natural chemical to deter deer browsing, it is not sufficient to protect the plant. A fence or protective barrier is necessary to prevent browsing on young plants.
Because aronia is in the same family as apples, they potentially share many of the same pests. Possible insect pests for aronia include apple maggot, brown marmorated stink bug, cherry fruit worm, grasshoppers, Japanese beetle, spotted winged drosophila and tarnished plant bug. These pests are not active in all regions of aronia production, so scouting is important to determine if management is required. There are very few insecticides labeled for use on aronia making control options limited. Some products include, Actara, Assail, Avaunt, Entrust, and Sevin. Others that may be labeled include insecticidal soaps, horticultural oils, neem products and Pyganic.
Observed diseases include cedar-quince (or hawthorn) rust and cedar-apple rust although healthy aronia plants seem to be very tolerant of these diseases. Yield most likely will not be effected by these diseases but lesions may be present on the leaves. Plants may also be susceptible to fire blight but documented cases are very rare.
Plants should be mulched to control weeds and conserve soil moisture. Controlling weeds with a string trimmer ("weed eater") or mowing under plants may damage canes and result in loss of fruit production and make plants susceptible to disease infestation.
Newly-planted aronia plant in mulched bed, Brenton Arboretum.
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