Several species of Aronia berries are cultivated and marketed as superfoods, but their wild cousins are out there free for the taking. Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is native to the Eastern half of the US and Canada (map here), and though the name sounds similar to chokecherry, they’re completely different plants.
In urban areas, they’re common in landscape plantings, and our local Trader Joes grows in ditches throughout the parking lot. They produce beautiful flowers in the spring, and the berries are just ripening in the early fall as the foliage puts on a beautiful show.
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t familiar with them until I picked up a few plants at one of our local nurseries. The tag said “beautiful native shrub with edible berries, a good choice for wet soils.” Much of our land is wet, and I’m always looking to supplement our permaculture plantings with edible fruit. Once I’d had the chance to watch my plantings for a full year, I started seeing black chokeberry bushes everywhere!
That goes to show you, if you really want to learn to identify a new wild edible, just try growing it. You’ll have a chance to watch it throughout the seasons and that makes it a lot easier to spot in the wild.
Identifying Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)
Black chokeberry produces edible berries in the late summer. Unlike chokecherries which grow in bunches similar to grapes, chokeberries grow individually. Each berry grows on its own individual stem, but they’ll often grow in clusters of 2-20 berries.
The berries themselves have a dry feel to their outsides and are a bit wrinkled. Don’t let that fool you, the juice easily and aronia juice is one of their primary uses.
Harvest them in bunches by the handful with the stems on, or quickly strip them with your fingers as you work. Harvests can be huge, and I’ve harvested more than 10 pounds from a small bush. They often grow together, so it’s easy enough to come home with plenty of wild foraged aronia berries.
They look similar to buckthorn berries, which are toxic, but the leaves of chokeberry and buckthorn are very different. Buckthorn leaves are often glossy and a bit more rounded. Chokeberry leaves come to a point with a serrated edge, and they’ll often be turning a rich red color as the berries ripen.
While buckthorns have long, very sharp spikes that can be extremely painful, chokeberry bushes are thornless. They have a rough brown/grey bark along small shrubby stems.
There are many species of aronia berries, and scientists haven’t quite agreed on how many officially exist. For now, there’s a red and purple wild variety in addition to this black chokeberry. The black variety contains the highest levels of Anthocyanins, which is the antioxidant compound most famously found in blueberries.
The anthocyanin content is roughly 1.5 times higher than in wild blueberries, and it’s even slightly higher than elderberries. That makes it one of the most concentrated naturally occurring sources. In that light, it makes sense that the superfood industry is trying to cultivate and bottle chokeberries, marketing them under the much more benign scientific name “aronia.”
Black chokeberries ripen pretty late in the year, and then they hang on the plants throughout the winter. It seems the birds prefer red fruits, and they strip just about every other type of wild berry before they get to the aronia.
For that reason, Aronia berries are wonderful for winter foraging. They can often be found in abundance, even in late winter here in Vermont.
The berries themselves are a tad bit bitter, but they have a natural sweetness that makes them tasty enough for a trailside snack. They’re made into all manner of syrups, pies and baked goods. This post has 6 different Aronia berry recipes, and I’m particularly excited about the Aronia Berry pie.
There’s also this fancy chokeberry vinaigrette, where the bittersweet flavors will complement a salad nicely.
I had originally planned on making an aronia jam, but they actually have remarkably little pectin. I’ve mostly stopped using commercial pectins, and I’m opting for natural jam thickeners (like citrus seed pectin instead). Still, with so little natural pectin it’s very hard to make Aronia jelly without store-bought pectin.
While they’re not ideal for jam, the low pectin content means they’re ideal for juice. I use my steam juicer to process Aronia berries in 10-pound batches. The juice is dark and clear, with plenty of flavor.
I’ve found Aronia juice to be a bit intense at full strength, and I dilute it with seltzer and add in a dash of homemade maple syrup for sweetness. (They’re quite tart otherwise.)
Aronia berries are also made into a syrup commercially, which can be used in dozens of ways. Here are a few different ideas: