May 2023: Chokeberry
This month’s Homegrown Habitat plants are the chokeberries. Write to author Sarah Middeleer at email@example.com.
Red and black chokeberries are two closely related shrubs that are highly attractive to birds and pollinators but are also appealing additions to the garden. They are both native to our region and are tolerant of widely varying growing conditions.
Red chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia, bears red fruit that persists into winter; whereas black chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa, bears black fruit that drops before winter. Both chokeberries offer attractive white flower clusters with pink or red anthers in May, followed by either red or purple/black fruit in late summer, and brilliant red foliage in fall.
Either one, but especially red chokeberry, can serve as a wonderful replacement for the highly invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus), whose bright pink/red foliage in fall has made it so popular. Red chokeberry adds the benefit of scarlet fruit along with the brilliant leaf color—not to mention its much higher value to wildlife.
As the name suggests, chokeberries’ fruit is highly astringent and therefore not appealing to people for eating off the plant. However, it is delicious in jams and jellies and high in antioxidants. The black fruit is said to be more palatable than the red. The highly nutritious fruit of black chokeberry is used for juice, wine, and pickle production in Russia, Denmark, and Eastern Europe. It is also used for food coloring.
Birds, however, relish the chokeberry fruits. The National Audubon Society reports that chokeberries may attract crows and jays, waxwings, vireos, orioles, thrushes, sparrows, wood warblers, woodpeckers, mockingbirds, and thrashers. The chokeberries are host plants to several moths and hairstreak butterflies, whose larvae help support songbird nestlings. Unfortunately, however, chokeberries also may attract deer.
Their primary pollinators are tiny bees and flower flies. I have one of each species of chokeberry, and they were both swarmed by these tiny insects earlier in May when they were in full floral glory.
These shrubs are rather refined and neat in appearance, with upright, distinct branching patterns. They have similar mature sizes; red grows 5-12 feet high by 4-8 feet wide, and black grows 3-10 feet high by 3-6 feet wide. Both grow higher than wide, which makes them adaptable to many locations in smaller gardens. Red has dark reddish-brown stems, which set off the white flowers in spring and offer winter interest.
Some writers have commented on the “legginess” of chokeberries, particularly red, which refers to their tendency to leaf and flower higher up on the plant. If you don’t like this feature, it can be masked by underplanting the shrubs with native ferns, grasses, or perennials. Try a combination of Jacob’s ladder, a delicate, mounding spring bloomer with blue flowers, and sensitive fern.
One pruning suggestion is to remove one-third of the largest branches over a three-year period to keep the plants full and robust. But pruning chokeberries is not necessary.
However, these shrubs, especially black chokeberry, may sucker (i.e., spread by sending out new stems from the base of the plant), so if you don’t want them to develop a larger thicket (which would, though, be very attractive to birds), you will need to cut off suckering stems from the base of the plants from time to time.
Chokeberries grow in full sun to part shade and can tolerate soil compaction, salt, drought, occasional flooding, and urban environments. Red is naturally found in mostly wet soils, whereas black grows in both wet and dry soils in the wild. Both are well suited to rain gardens, hedgerows and screens, embankments, and even specimen plantings. Their fibrous root systems are excellent for erosion control. Regardless of how you might utilize these lovely shrubs, they will be sure to charm human visitors to your garden and will also bring many birds and beneficial insects.
Do you have experience with, or questions about, red or black chokeberry? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love to hear from readers!
Anna Fialkoff et al., Native Shrubs for Northeast Landscapes, Wild Seed Project, 2023
Mark Richardson and Dan Jaffe, Native Plants for New England Gardens, New England Wildflower Society, 2018