Are you a fan of lesser-known fruits? Prefer to stick to native plants in your garden? Then you should be growing chokeberries. These plants have been gaining in popularity in recent years thanks to their newly-minted superfood status.
Thanks to their delicious taste and incredible medicinal benefits, chokeberries have been a staple in Native American and Eastern European diets for centuries. In the past few years, more and more people are catching onto these fabulous treats.
Here is everything you need to know before growing chokeberries at home.
What Are Chokeberries?
Aronias, otherwise known as chokeberries, are part of the Aronia genus of the Rosaceae family. That makes them a relative of things like cane fruits and roses.
The most common types of chokeberry are black (A. melanocarpa), red (A. arbutifolia), and purple chokeberry (A. x prunifolia).
Both black and red chokeberries are more commonly found in garden landscapes than the purple type and they have been cultivated in Europe since the early 1900s. These berries are also commercially cultivated in eastern parts of North America, where they grow native.
Many Native American tribes used chokeberries to cure colds as the fruit has high levels of antioxidants. Typically, the fruits are ready for harvest between mid-July to August.
You can grow chokeberries in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8.
Often, chokeberries are confused with chokecherries as they look similar.
The easiest way to tell the difference is chokeberries have seeds and chokecherries as a single stone.
Both types of fruit are excellent for use in the kitchen, so some people choose to grow the two fruits in their garden. Chokeberries are ideal for growing at home and harvesting to make tasty treats for your friends and family.
Best Cultivars of Chokeberries
In the US, there are two common cultivars of chokeberries, ‘ Viking’ and ‘Nero’, used for commercial purposes. But you can find lots more options for the home garden
‘Viking’ plants can grow up to as high as six feet tall and have particularly large berries. This shrub begins with dark, green leaves that will turn to dark purple/red in autumn. You can also see pink flowers blooming during late spring.
‘Nero’ also produces large berries and has attractive dark, green foliage. This chokeberry can grow slightly taller with a maximum height of eight feet when well cared for.
For cultivars that were bred outside America, you can find Rubina, which is a cross of Russian and Finnish plants. The berries on this shrub are medium-sized and have a dark purple color. They taste bitter and are not as sweet as ‘Viking’ or ‘Nero’ cultivars.
Chokeberries are beautiful to observe in autumn when their color changes from green to dark red, purple, and black. Autumn Magic’ is particularly ideal for gardeners looking to sprinkle some joy into their outdoor space after summer.
This cultivars of chokeberry has particularly bright red foliage in the autumn. Like the others on this list, it’s easy to care for.
Originally from Sweden, this delicious variety of chokeberry is often used to make jam and other sweet treats. You will notice lovely white flowers blooming on this plant during spring. Purple and black berries appear in autumn.
A. melanocarpa ‘Morton,’ also known as Iriqious Beauty, stays compact and under three feet tall. It’s fast to spread, without becoming invasive, and establishes new plants nearby via root suckers. The bright orange and red foliage in the fall really stands out.
Growing about five to 10 feet tall, depending on the exposure and soil, this plant has a medium growth rate and tolerates a good amount of shade. The fruits are purple and quite large.
Here are a few other cultivars that are not common in the US, but worth checking out:
Chokeberries are adaptable to different soil and sun exposure. But, the ideal location is somewhere with full sun as this encourages flowering and the healthy growth of berries.
You can also grow chokeberries in partial sun, but expect a smaller harvest.
Chokeberries need rich, well-draining, and moist soil. This shrub can also grow naturally in low-lying swamps, clay soil, and wetlands. But again, it won’t grow as well in clay or overly moist soil.
Try to aim for a pH level of between 5.8 and 6.5. Due to the shallow root system of chokeberry shrubs, the most critical aspect is the topsoil. Use high-quality potting soil to cover the top layer after planting the roots in the ground.
When to Plant Chokeberries?
There are two times of the year when it’s ideal to plant chokeberries. The first option is at the end of October or early November, when the dormant winter period is just beginning. This will allow the roots to settle in before spring.
Alternatively, you can plant chokeberries in early spring if you cover the soil with mulch to protect the roots from any late frosts.
If you’re considering planting more than one shrub at home, you should ensure there are 30-40 inches of space between them.
Planting Chokeberries in a Pot
It’s possible to plant chokeberries in a pot. While this method isn’t as popular, it’s totally doable.
To start, you’ll need a container that can hold 20 gallons of soil. Fill with a standard potting soil.
You should use the same type of soil and repot the shrub every two years in spring. Additionally, you can add a fresh layer of mulch to retain moisture.
Caring for Chokeberries
You must water your shrubs carefully throughout the first couple of years of their lives. Once fully established, you can put the brakes on the watering schedule. The soil should stay regularly moist for the first few years and then the top inch or two can dry out.
Fertilizing should be carried out in the mid-spring. Potted chokeberries need a second round of fertilizer in the late summer as they are limited because of their growing environment and rely on you for their nutrients.
Apply a well-balanced, slow-release fertilizer to ground and potted plants. Something formulated for fruits and veggies is ideal, like Osmocote’s Smart Release fertilizer.
For maintenance, pruning can keep your shrub in check so it doesn’t grow out of control. As a general rule, the branches that are five to six years old will produce the best flowers and fruits, which means the older branches can be trimmed.
As long as your shrub has a collection of youthful branches, you will be able to harvest fruit for many years to come!
Pull up any suckers that form as these will spread your plant all over your yard.
Common Pests and Diseases
Thankfully, chokeberry shrubs don’t suffer from many diseases and pests. Although, some issues can occur when growing this plant at home.
When winter moths (Operophtera brumata) are in their caterpillar phase, they eat the leaves and flowers of shrubs like chokeberries. If your plants are dropping their leaves, it could be these invasive moths.
You’ll need to use a multi-pronged approach. First, keep your plant well fed and watered to support it during the stress of losing its leaves. Apply sticky bands to catch some of the insects, and spray trees with horticultural oil or a product that contains Bacillus thuringiensis kurtstaki.
Another common pest on chokeberry shrubs is spotted wing drosophilia (Drosophila suzuki). This insect is a type of fruit fly that frequently appears during spring and summer. Signs of this infestation are rotten fruit and decaying leaves.
They only feed on damaged or rotting fruit, so remove this from your plant quickly and you won’t have to worry about this pest.
Fireblight is a bacterial disease that targets ornamentals like chokeberries. Caused by the bacteria Erwinia amylovora, the name comes from the fact that it leaves plants looking like they’ve been scorched by fire. The bacteria is spread by insects and water.
Look for amber-yellow liquid oozing from cankers in the plant, especially in the spring. Then comes the scorched look, followed by dropping leaves and dying shoots. Some plants, especially young ones, will die.
If you see any of these signs on your shrubs, you should prune away the infected areas. Then, treat with copper fungicide.
This fungal disease will leave white dust all over your plant if there is an infection. You should be cautious about any minor signs of illness and make sure the climate is not too warm as this fungal disease loves the heat.
Head to our guide on powdery mildew to learn how to identify and treat this disease.
Harvesting and Using Your Chokeberries
After months of looking after your chokeberries, you’ll be able to harvest. Usually, harvest takes place in August and lasts roughly three weeks depending on your region. Remember to be quick when picking your berries, as local birds may swoop down first and take some!
To harvest, simply cut the berries with secateurs. The berries in their raw state can be bitter, so many people decide to use them to make jam and jelly and mix the fruit with sugar.