Aronia: A Backyard Superfood
By Dawn Combs
A few years ago, a number of very expensive juices became popular in a multilevel marketing model. Especially because of the field I work in, it was almost impossible for me to go anywhere without running into someone who’d tell me about this miracle berry blend that would keep me young, make my skin look great, and would cure or prevent cancer. I was skeptical to say the least, but I decided to look into the claims.
The truth about those trendy juices? They were what they claimed to be. But finding that truth wasn’t enough for me — there was more to the story, and it led me to the Aronia bush (Aroniamelanocarpa).
It doesn’t really matter which type of juice sparked my curiosity. I’m certain it contained a few “superfruits” — goji berry, acai berry, pomegranate — that are high in antioxidants from the dark pigment of their skins. Numerous studies have shown that fruits and vegetables with high levels of antioxidant activity have favorable effects on our immune systems. Although the entire metabolic process isn’t yet understood, and the effects may involve other factors, foods high in antioxidants seem to help control free-radical damage and support the body’s fight against aging and even cancer. No, these superfoods are not a hoax.
Aronia Berry Concentrate Recipe
Strawberry-Aronia-Rhubarb Refrigerator Jam
I found that my real problem with the juice wasn’t the expense or what I thought was an unrealistic health claim — it was about the plants. We have a tendency to romanticize distant locales and the plants that grow there. This relegates plants in our own backyards to “weed” status. The goji berry originated in China and is only now beginning to become popular here in the United States (see the article “Grow Goji Berries” to learn how to grow your own). The acai is native to northern South America. Pomegranates admittedly have been grown in Arizona and California more recently, but they originated in the Mediterranean. I thought that if each of these regions had its superfruit, then there must be one or two in our corner of the world. That’s when I discovered the Aronia bush.
Aronia Characteristics and History
Aronia, also called “black chokeberry,” is a small, suckering shrub that’s part of the rose family. It has white blooms of five petals and five sepals. The center of the flower appears almost fuzzy, as it’s made up of multiple stamens and styles. It grows in full sun or partial shade, often at the edge of a tree line. Here in the Great Lakes region, where it’s native, wild Aronia is found in low-lying, swampy areas. It’s leggy and often overlooked as a mere nuisance. In short, it’s a “weed.” It seems unremarkable, and it could easily be overlooked as nothing more than bird food. However, Aronia has been appreciated in Europe, where breeders have worked to select for higher rates of fruiting and better landscape forms. They know something we’re only beginning to recognize in the United States.
Aronia berries are nearly black when they ripen in August. If you choose either the ‘Viking’ or the ‘Nero’ cultivar, you’ll likely have large, reliable harvests by the time the plants are 2 to 3 years old. The deep black color of the berries gives us a clue about what’s inside — high levels of anthocyanins and other antioxidants.
Aronia wasn’t always overlooked on this continent. The Native Americans reportedly used the super-tart fruits to preserve meat. Early settlers took advantage of the high pectin content of the berries, adding them to jams and jellies to make them set. Unfortunately, anyone who’s ever tried to pick and eat Aronia knows it’s not everyone’s first choice for a fresh snack. It’s best to combine these berries with something sweeter.
Health and Culinary Uses
Even if you don’t want to add fresh Aronia berries to your morning cereal, there’s much to celebrate. These black beauties have a well-earned reputation for their beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system. Studies have found that they’re especially helpful in shortening heart attack and stroke recovery times. They’re also being studied for their effect on ailments of the digestive and urinary tracts. In fact, Aronia berries have displaced cranberries as my favorite remedy for urinary tract infections and for the prevention of kidney stones. Some of the most exciting studies are examining Aronia’s effects on breast and colon cancer. There’s even some suggestion that they can enhance our overall well-being, much like an adaptogen.
The berries may taste overly tart right off the shrub, but they’re delicious in your favorite baked goods. Insiders know that a bit of frost makes the Aronia berry sweeter. That seems like it would be simple to achieve — just leave the berries on the plant until cold weather comes. Unfortunately, harvest time is in August, and it’s already difficult enough to pick the ripe berries before the birds do. If you grow your own Aronia, be sure to use bird netting, and put the berries right into the freezer after picking.
After you gather them and give them a touch of frost in the freezer, you can make just about anything you can imagine. One of my students owns an Aronia farm, and last year they brought me a sample of a colleague’s fruit concentrate. We added it to orange juice, and it’s hands down my favorite way to enjoy Aronia.
When you become aware of this plant, it’ll be difficult not to spot it everywhere you go. Because A. melanocarpa is often chosen for landscaping installations, I’ve found shrub rows in the middle of parking lots, and surprisingly, they usually have their berries intact. If you come upon something like this, though, don’t be fooled into thinking you’ve found a goldmine. If the birds won’t eat them, you don’t want them either!
My skepticism about that bottle of superfruit juice led me to the gift of rediscovering a forgotten treasure in our midst. I became so enamored with the Aronia berry I put in close to 100 shrubs last year. It’s not difficult to find nursery stock of the improved cultivars. Some of the up-and-coming Aronia farms in North America sell stock along with a wide range of Aronia berry products. Although they’re not heirlooms, these improved cultivars enjoy drier soil and lend themselves to row planting. I can’t think of a reason why anyone growing other types of fruit wouldn’t add a few of these shrubs.
While we can all appreciate exotic, imported superfruits, there’s much to be gained from falling in love with the “weeds” in our own backyards.
Sources for Aronia Starts and Products
Dawn Combs homesteads with her family in central Ohio and is the author of Heal Local.
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