Chokeberries, Chokecherries, Sandcherries: Some Wild Fruits for Colorado
By Mikl Brawner
These native and semi-wild fruiting plants are tough, easy to grow, adaptable, and very beneficial to bees, butterflies, and birds. The highly nutritious but often bitter fruits can be tasty if prepared properly. When grown with their natures in mind they are useful and attractive landscape specimens too.
Above: Aronia prunifolia, Chokeberry
Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) isn’t the same as Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana). Native to Eastern North America it’s found in moist to wet woods, swamps, and “dry” slopes. In the garden, Black Chokeberry has three seasons of interest. The showy, 5-petalled white flowers bloom in May, followed by pea-sized black fruit (melano-black, carpa-fruit). In the fall the attractive, shiny green leaves turn a rich red and orange.
The wild species commonly grows 3'-6' tall, sometimes 8'. Other Aronias are: the slightly taller A. melanocarpa elata; ‘Morton’ IROQUOIS BEAUTY 2'-5'; ‘McKenzie’, ‘Nero’ and ‘Viking’ selected for fruit; and ‘Low Scape Mound’ just 1'-2' tall. There are two other taller species: Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’ is 6'-10' with red fruit and blazing red fall color, and Aronia prunifolia 8'-10' with large deep purple fruit and rich red fall color.
Above: Aronia arbitifolia, Chokeberry Photo: Bob Gutowski
All A.melanocarpa varieties are tough and hardy to zone 3 and 8500' elevation; the other species are hardy to zone 4, 7500'. All tolerate a variety of soil conditions - wet, clay, compacted, and even somewhat dry. They do have a preference for slightly acidic soils. In Colorado, plant with compost and maybe some coffee grounds or cottonseed meal to lower the pH, mulch 2" deep, and give some irrigation. They can be planted in a wet spot, around a pond, along a stream or in a Rain Garden. They can sucker which is helpful in erosion control, or you can remove suckers to control spreading. Full sun gives better fall color and fruit production, but Aronia grows well in Colorado in part shade.
The fruit is technically edible, but it is very bitter and astringent, hence the name chokeberry. Don’t believe sources claiming it is “tasty”. I have tasted several varieties and some are better, but none are good enough to eat raw for a snack. However, there is a growing market for Chokeberries because, mixed with white grape juice or used in baking, they are highly prized for their nutritional/medicinal value. Research has shown Aronia to have more and higher levels of antioxidants than any fruit grown in temperate climates (5x more than blueberries), especially anthocyanins, flavonoids and polyphenols, plus vitamin C and manganese. Claims say it helps control obesity, blood sugar levels, blood pressure, etc. Native Americans made Aronia tea for the common cold. This “superfruit” is now being grown by the acres in midwestern states like Iowa and Michigan to sell to the health-food market.
Above: Fruit of Aronia arbutifolia, Red Chokeberry
Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana, can get confused with Chokeberry, especially our western subspecies, Prunus virginiana ssp. melanocarpa, since they are both melanocarpa (black fruited). But Chokecherry is a tree, growing 12’-30’ tall and a strongly suckering plant, often making colonies. It grows natively in Colorado’s canyons, along streams and ditches, and seems to like moist locations. It can stand some drought, but really declines in dry years without irrigation. The foliage turns a beautiful red in fall. The white, fragrant flowers hang down in racemes and are followed by red-turning-black bird cherries. These fruits are very astringent and require cooking, often with sugar, to be edible and delicious. The fragrant flowers feed bees and butterflies, and birds and bears love the cherries. It is hardy to zone 2 or 10,500'.
There are two purple-leafed selections of Chokecherry: ‘Shubert’ and ‘Canada Red’. Both trees leaf out green and turn purple-red as they mature. According to some sources, Canada Red was selected for faster growth, straighter trunks, and better branching. Other experts say, if they are grown vegetatively (not from seed) there may be little difference between them.
Above: Chokecherry 'Sucker Punch', a selection of our native tree that's unusual because it doesn't sucker. All chokecherries make good screens and wildlife habitat.
PHOTOS: Gary Epstein for PlantSelect
Another purple-leafed variety was found and propagated by Scott Skogerboe of Ft. Collins Wholesale Nursery. Unlike other chokecherries, it doesn’t have the problem of spreading widely by suckers so it is called ‘Sucker Punch’. A yellow-fruited variety, leucocarpa, was rediscovered at the Cheyenne USDA Experimental Station and named ‘Yellow Bird’. All chokecherries make good screens, wildlife habitat, and are useful for controlling erosion.
Another native Colorado cherry is Prunus besseyi, the Western Sand Cherry. This shrub is sometimes confused with the Purple Leaf Sandcherry, Prunus cistena, a small, non-native tree. Prunus besseyi spreads 4'-6' tall with masses of fragrant white flowers that feed the bees. Following the flowers are large ¾" round, purplish-black cherries that are favored by birds. These fruits are sometimes described as edible and sweet, but like most seed-grown fruits, there is wide variation; the ones I have eaten were only OK. They are recommended for pies, jellies, and jams.
The glossy gray-green leaves turn a soft red in fall. The plant likes sun, tolerates a wide range of conditions including heat, wind, and cold to zone 3 (9000'), and has moderate to xeric water needs. In my experience, it does not like wet feet nor too much drought. Rabbits can eat the thin stems to the ground in winter. CG editor Jane Shellenberger says mulching with sharp-edged pinecones (Ponderosas) discourages rabbit munching because it hurts their feet.
Above: 'Pawnee Buttes', a PlantSelect selection of our Western native Sandcherry has beautiful red fall color and purplish-black cherries that birds love.
An outstanding selection, ‘Pawnee Buttes’ Sandcherry (PlantSelect) varies between 15" and 30" high and spreads 4'-8' wide. It has the same flowers and fruit as the upright form. Other variations sometimes available are ‘Boulder Weeping’, a very creeping form found in Boulder County, ‘Blonde Bessie’ and ‘Hansen’s Bush Cherry’.
Other native fruits that are beautiful, useful, beneficial to wildlife, and good to eat (even raw) are: Prunus americana, the wild plum; Ribes aureum, Golden Currant and the selection ‘Gwen’s Buffalo’; Ribes odoratum, Crandall Clove Currant; Amelanchier alnifolia, Serviceberry; and Vitis riparia, Riverbank Grape.
Mikl Brawner and his wife Eve co-own Harlequins Gardens in Boulder, specializing in organic veggie starts and herbs, natives, sustainable roses, xeriscape, unusual perennials, and products to build healthy soil.