Choose Chokeberries

We have an often-damp low spot at one end of our lawn. This summer the xeric fernbush that I planted there five years ago finally showed its displeasure by up and dying. Now I’m looking to fill the gap with a medium-sized shrub that thrives in Colorado’s climate and soils, offers three (if not four) season interest, and attracts birds. After a bit of research I’ve settled on the perfect candidate—the chokeberry.

Most Colorado gardeners know all about chokecherries—a native shrub with simple, classic “leaf-shaped” leaves, white flowers, golden fall foliage, and red fruit that we like to make into delicious jelly.  Chokeberries, on the other hand, are less well known, but just as desirable.

Like chokecherries, chokeberries are members of the rose family. Of the two species (or perhaps three—botanists don’t agree on the taxonomy), the Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is the one commonly found for sale here in Colorado.

Chokeberries don’t have a single trunk, but rather multiple branching stems sprout from the roots, eventually forming a thicket ranging from three to six feet tall and wide, depending on the cultivar. White flowers appear in late spring, followed by clusters of purple berry-like fruits that turn to black as they ripen. The oval leaves have finely-toothed edges. In autumn, they turn brilliant vermillion-orange, red, and/or purple before they fall.

Hailing from the east, from Ontario and Newfoundland to Georgia, chokeberries like more water than what nature provides in most of the west. While they tolerate limited drought, they can also handle boggy conditions. While acid soils are preferred, they seem to do just fine in Colorado’s more alkaline soils. As you might expect from their northern range, the shrubs are plenty hardy, thriving in USDA zones 3-8.  In Colorado’s dry climate, diseases aren’t a problem.

The fruit are edible, and are used in jellies, teas, wines, and other prepared foods. Eating them straight off the shrub isn’t recommended, as they’re tart and bitter, and contain an astringent chemical that will make your mouth pucker—hence their common name. Birds aren’t as fussy, however, and are attracted to the feast.

Their medium size and ability to thrive in either sun or part shade means that chokeberries can be used in a variety of ways, in hedges, rain gardens or alongside ponds or streams, or naturalized as an understory in a woodland garden. They’re best placed behind shorter plants, as they can get a bit leggy over time.

Maintenance is minimal. Diseases are rarely an issue. If needed, cut off aging shoots at ground level while the plant is dormant. If space is limited, remove suckers to keep the plants from spreading.

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