Native to North America, Aronia melanocarpa is a low-maintenance shrub that produces fruit with extraordinarily high levels of antioxidants. In this article, you’ll find out how to grow, forage, and use aronia fruit!
Introduction to aronia fruit
Aronia is a species of fruiting shrub in the rose family (Rosaceae) native to eastern North America. Its native range extends from Canada south to Georgia.
There are several species of plants in the genus Aronia. Some produce red fruit, such as Aronia arbutifolia. Others produce dark purple-black fruit, such as Aronia prunifolia and Aronia melanocarpa.
Technically, aronia is a pome fruit like apples, its relative, but they’re often referred to as aronia berries due to their small size and appearance. An aronia fruit is about the size of a blueberry.
We’ve been growing one species of aronia — Aronia melanocarpa — for about 10 years. That’s the species we’ll be referencing in this article, and the species that’s received the most research attention due to its potential health benefits.
About Aronia melanocarpa
Aronia melanocarpa produces small, dark purple-black fruit that may have the highest antioxidant content of any fruit in the world. Let’s take a quick dive into the supporting evidence for that claim and what it could mean for human health:
What are antioxidants and why do they matter?
The NIH’s National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health describes antioxidants as follows:
“Antioxidants are man-made or natural substances that may prevent or delay some types of cell damage. Diets high in vegetables and fruits, which are good sources of antioxidants, have been found to be healthy; however, research has not shown antioxidant supplements to be beneficial in preventing diseases. Examples of antioxidants include vitamins C and E, selenium, and carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin.”
Fruits and veggies are especially high in antioxidants, and diets with a diversity of whole fruits and veggies have numerous, proven health benefits. However, as the NIH points out antioxidant supplements don’t seem to pack the same punch.
Why don’t antioxidant supplements work like antioxidants contained in whole foods?
This is a topic we’ve followed for years. We’re certainly not claiming to be health experts, but our guess is that the health benefits from antioxidants seen in whole fruits and veggies come in complex synergistic packages.
When isolated/reduced into supplement and pill form, those benefits are lost. Analogy: the kitchen in your house only has value so long as it’s an integral part of your whole house. If you rip your kitchen out and place it in a field, it won’t be very functional.
Or, as research into the food synergy hypothesis states:
“Many examples are provided of superior effects of whole foods over their isolated constituents. The food synergy concept supports the idea of dietary variety and of selecting nutrient-rich foods. The more we understand about our own biology and that of plants and animals, the better we will be able to discern the combinations of foods, rather than supplements, which best promote health.”
In short, taking vitamins and supplements instead of eating whole foods is akin to trying to make yourself warm with a single thread rather than using the whole blanket.
How do antioxidant levels in aronia fruit compare to other fruits?
Aronia melanocarpa fruit may well have the highest antioxidant levels of any fruit/berry in the world, but it’s impossible to say with certainty. That’s because there are different types of antioxidants whose quantities vary within the same fruit.
There are also many different cultivars of the same fruit. One cultivar of fruit/berry may have higher quantities of a certain antioxidant than another cultivar of the same fruit. Complicating matters further, the conditions in which a fruit is grown can impact its nutrition and antioxidant levels.
Keeping the above info in mind, research does show that aronia fruit generally has extraordinarily high levels of antioxidants. Without going too far in the weeds (no pun intended), a couple of highlights from existing research:
- “Among 15 fruit samples, chokeberries [aka aronia] and blackberries exhibited the highest antiradical activity. The H-ORAC values noted for chokeberries were many times greater than the L-ORAC values, i.e., 158.2 and 2.42 µmol TE/g FW, respectively.” (source)
- “Aronia contains the highest amounts of polyphenols and anthocyanins among the berries studied. It shows the highest antioxidant activity, as well.” (source)
What do aronia fruit taste like?
If you’ve never heard of aronia fruit before, that could be because you’ve only heard them referred to as “chokeberries.” Suffice it to say, that’s not a particularly appetizing name and it comes with cause…
Why is aronia called chokeberry? The reason for the name chokeberry is due to aronia’s intense, astringent flavor. Perhaps that’s the price you pay for packing all that nutrition into a small fruit!
In defense of aronia fruit, I’ve actually come to enjoy eating them raw. The best time of year to eat them is in the late summer/early fall when the fruit is at absolute peak ripeness.
How do you know when Aronia melanocarpa fruit is ripe? They’re so dark purple that they appear black in color, and the fruit is plumped up to the point that it is slightly soft to the touch.
Yes, they still have that characteristic astringent flavor but there’s also other pleasantly sweet berry notes present. We often grow stevia, an herb whose leaves are 200-300x sweeter than sugar. A mouthful of raw aronia fruit with a couple stevia leaves mixed in is a very pleasurable snack on a garden walk.
Be warned that the fruit will stain your mouth and teeth blue/purple for a while after eating!
How to use aronia fruit in the kitchen
As it turns out, aronia fruit can be made into very tasty culinary creations, which is why many people (us included) are happy to grow them.
Back before I stopped consuming alcohol for healthspan/lifespan reasons, we made a very good aronia & blackberry wine. An Instagram friend told us that the best mead he’s ever made was with aronia fruit.
Beyond adult beverages, we often throw a handful of fresh (or dried) aronia fruit into a protein shake.
We also make a raw aronia relish inspired by my mom’s cranberry relish recipe:
- 1 cup fresh aronia fruit
- 1 apple, seeds removed
- 1 orange (with zest added but not pith)
- honey to taste
Throw all ingredients into a blender and you’ll have a beautiful, dark purple fruit relish to serve as a side with dinner.
How to grow Aronia melanocarpa
If you have an interest in growing Aronia melanocarpa shrubs yourself, you’ll be pleased to know that they’re extremely low-maintenance. This quality is likely owing to the fact that they’re native plants acclimated to our climate and pests.
Aronia grows from Ag Zones 3-8. At maturity, they only reach a max height of about 8′ and a width of about 4-5′, about the size of a large blueberry bush. Thus, we’ve never even bothered to prune ours after nearly a decade of growing them.
Another nice characteristic: aronia is self-pollinating, meaning you can grow just one plant and still get fruit. (We have three aronia plants to get enough fruit to make assorted concoctions.)
Our aronia maintenance regimen consists of top-dressing with 3-6″ of mulch around the base of the plants once per year and occasionally giving them a bit of liquid gold when the urge strikes. Our aronia plants have also survived right through a couple of severe droughts without supplemental irrigation. Our kinda plants!
Similar to blueberries, it is recommended to trim out growth/canes that are over 3 years old since they decline in productivity after that age. Doing so allows new, more productive growth to fill in. Prune in late winter/early spring just before the plant breaks dormancy.
Aronia breaks dormancy in our Zone 7B garden in late March. Small, attractive white flower clusters appear in mid-late April.
Aronia fruit ripens from early – late August, with some variability by year.
We’ve read that a single mature aronia bush can produce 30+ pounds of fruit, but have never weighed the total harvest from any of our plants. In early fall, the leaves turn a gorgeous red color before dropping during the dormant months.
Where do you buy aronia plants?
There are a number of highly rated sellers/nurseries on Amazon offering both aronia seeds or saplings. Just be mindful that it’s more difficult to grow aronia from seed and it will take a few additional years to reach fruiting age.
Aronia is a fairly common native plant in parts of the east coast. It’s also commonly used as a commercial landscape plant, since it’s attractive and low maintenance.
That means even if you don’t grow your own aronia, you may still be able to forage it. One of our gardening friends has found robust aronia plants growing in the landscape at our local mall, so be on the lookout!
Warning: As we detail in our Beginner’s Guide to Foraging: 12 Rules to Follow, forage with safety as your top priority. Be 100% certain you’ve properly identified any wild food you eat or you can kill or sicken yourself. Also, be mindful to only forage in places where you’re confident pesticides have not been used.
In the wild, aronia plants are typically found in very damp soil growing in proximity to creeks, rivers, or swamps.
Now you know about the potential health benefits of native aronia fruit — perhaps the highest antioxidant fruit in the world! And you also know how to grow or forage your own aronia.
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