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Aronia melanocarpa Michx.

Common name(s): Black chokeberry
Family: Rosaceae
Type: Woody shrub
Size: 3-6' high, equal width
Texture: Medium
Hardiness: Zone 3a USDA
Range: Nova Scotia . Florida . Indiana
Fruit
Introduction:

Not too common in standard nursery stock, black chokeberry is finally starting to get the recognition that it deserves. Glossy, pendulous clusters of black fruit suspended before lustrous green leaves are pleasing when viewed up close in summer, but the flower display and fall color are excellent even from afar.

Seemingly phased by nothing, this shrub will tolerate anything thrown at it: swampy ground, dry sandy soil, drought, salt, and pollution. It is probably pickiest about its light, tolerating partial shade but becoming more leggy and affected by mildew with in darker corners.

A great deal of controversy surrounds the nomenclature of the chokeberries some sources list various species under the genus Pyrus, while still others claim that it is a member of the genus Photinia. I have yet to see a single source agree with another source other than to comment on how difficult this genus is to classify.

Bean, citing James W. Hardin's article "The Enigmatic Chokeberries", Bull. Torr. Club 100 178-184, 1973, claims that there is no way of distinguishing Aronia prunifolia from Aronia melanocarpa. He attributes this to shifting landmasses, forcing Aronia arbutifolia and Aronia melanocarpa together and allowing them to interbreed. Because the seeds can be set without fertilization, he says that "they can breed true, and thus simulate a species."

Swink & Wilhelm have similar observations, generally stating that anything with glabrous (smooth and without any hair) leaves and flower parts should be considered to be Aronia melanocarpa.

To complicate matters further, it seems that either Aronia prunifolium or Aronia melanocarpa does not have good fall coloration. Because of the difficulty in discerning between species, plants may be mislabelled as well. When picking plants for fall color, they should be purchased in the fall so that the best selection can be picked. They transplant readily, and can even be planted before winter.

I highly recommend this plant to anyone interested in trying something a little old-fashioned, but still a little different.

Foliage:

Leaves
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Appearing only on the top 2/3s of the plant, the glossy bright green leaves are quite showy and emerge in April. Only 1-3" long, they are often clean from disease and pest problems, catching the sunlight quite nicely. Unfortunately, they darken as the season progresses, hiding the dark fruit.

For identification purposes, it is useful to note that the chokeberries are the only shrubs with small black glands along the upper surfaces of the midribs of the leaves (with the exception of a few Malus species).

Taxonomic description:

Elliptic or obovate to oblong-oblanceolate, acuminate or obtuse apex, 1-3" long, glabrous or nearly so. Margins finely serrate, petiole 1/4" or less.

Flowers:

Set nicely against the lustrous foliage, the whitish- pink flowers are borne in loose clusters of up to 8. Opening in mid-May, these clusters can reach 2" in width.
Flowers

Taxonomic description:

Inflorescences glabrous, 1.5-2" wide, loose, containing 5-8 3/8" flowers, anthers reddish.

Fruit:

Fruit
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1/4" in diameter, the bluish-black fruit hang down in clusters of 10 or so from red pedicels. They color in September, but aren't really noticed until the leaves change color and drop in the fall. The glossy fruit will persist through January, but will begin to dry out at that point.

It derives the name 'chokeberry' from the extremely astringent taste that birds supposedly won't tolerate, but it can be quite a pleasant flavor with sweeteners. In fact, some companies like Wildland are now producing Aronia berry juice for consumption.

Songbirds and upland gamebirds do enjoy the bitter fruit in winter months, as do many species of small mammals.

Taxonomic description:

Pome, 1/4" wide, globose, purplish-black.

Fall Color:

Ranging from crimson to wine-red to apricot, the leaves are splendid in late October. They have a nearly luminescent quality, brightening darker corners on cloudy autumn days.

Bark:

Not particularly noticeable, the reddish-brown bark on chokeberries is smooth with conspicuous lenticels, exfoliating into tight curls with a cross-check diamond pattern. Younger branches are slender and yellow-brown with silvery exfoliating scales.

Pathology:

This is yet another nearly disease and pest-free species. There are occasionally problems with twig and fruit blight covering plant parts with powdery mold. Leaf spots and rust have also been reported, but never with adverse effects.

Propagation:

Seeds should be stratified in moist peat for 3 months between 33 and 41&176;F.

Softwood cuttings taken in early summer root easily untreated I have had 100% success with 1000ppm IBA quick dip.

Division has also proved to be highly successful. Cutting suckers with a sharp spade and transplanting them throughout the garden will almost always work.

Comments:

Like all chokeberries, this extremely adaptable shrub is a plant for almost all seasons. Its pollution, drought, insect and disease tolerance are all reasons why it is favored among nurserymen it was listed in "The Top Ten-Plus-One Shrubs for Minnesota", Minnesota Horticulturalist 106(6)152-154, June-July 1978.

Suggested uses:

Habit
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Most effective en masse, this low-growing shrub could also be used in the border. Because of its legginess, it should be used as a backdrop for low-growing perennials or groundcovers in more formal, tight spaces.

Its high tolerance to drought, mine spoils, soil compaction, and salt all make it an ideal plant along roadsides, highways, and parking lots.

Cultivars:

var. elata Taller and less suckering
var. grandifolia Taller, with larger flowers and fruit.

Companion plants:

Bogs:

    Betula pumila, Calpogon tuberosus, Chamaedaphne calyculata angustifolia, Dryopteris thelypteris pubescens, Hypericum virginicum, Larix laricina, Osmunda regalis spectabilis, Rhus vernix, Spiraea tomentosa rosea, Vaccinium corymbosum, Vaccinium macrocarpon.

Peaty excavated sites:

    Aletris farinosa, Alnus rugosa, Asclepias incarnata, Ludwigia alternifolia, Populus tremuloides, Salix glaucophylloides, Solidago patula, Xyris torta.

Peaty flatwoods:

    Bartonia virginica, Gaultheria procumbens, Nyssa sylvatica, Populus tremuloides, Quercus palustris, Rubus hispidus.

Dry, sandy soils:

    Hieracium canadense fasciculatum, Lespedeza capitata, Potentilla simplex, Vaccinium angustifolium, Viola fimbriatula.

Medicinal uses:

Originally considered to be of little medicinal value, new research shows that Aronia melanocarpa has a high concentration of polyphenols and anthocyanins, stimulating circulation, protecting the urinary tract, and strengthening the heart.

Ongoing studies at the University of Illinois also suggest that Aronia may include compounds that fight cancer and cardiac disease.

References:

  • Bean, W. J. Trees & Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles: Supplement.. London: John Murray, 1997.
  • Dirr, Michael. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. Champaign: Stipes Publishing, 1990.
  • Griffiths, M. The Index of Garden Plants. Portland: Timber Press, 1994.
  • Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.
  • Johnson, Warren T. and Howard H. Lyon. Insects That Feed on Trees and Shrubs. Ithica: Cornell University, 1994.
  • Krussmann, Gerd. Manual of Cultivated Broad-Leaved Trees & Shrubs, vol. I. Beaverton: Timber Press, 1976.
  • Rehder, Alfred. Manual of Cultivated Trees and Shrubs. New York: MacMillan Publishing.
  • Sinclair, Wayne A. et al. Diseases of Trees and Shrubs. Ithica: Cornell University, 1993.
  • Swink, Floyd and Gerould Wilhelm. Plants of the Chicago Region. Lisle: Morton Arboretum, 1994.
  • Wyman, Donald. Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia. New York: MacMillan, 1986.


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