Aronia, A new commercial berry crop for America

Aronia melanocarpa is a woody, perennial shrub that is native to the northeastern quarter of the Umited States and Southeastern Canada.  It grows in full sun and along woodland edges.

Early in the 20th century, aronia was introduced to Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia where high quality, large fruited cultivars were selected.  In the last ten years, these improved cultivars have been reintroduced to the Unites States and are being planted for commercial berry production.
Aronia melanocarpa often goes by the common name “aronia” but it also has the rather unfortunate common name of “chokeberry.”  Aronia should not be confused with chokecherry, Prunus virginiana, which is native to most of North America.  Its leaves, stems, and seeds contain toxic amounts of hydrocyanic acid (Trinklein 2007). About the only thing that chokeberry and chokecherry have in common are their sound-alike common names.  To avoid confusion, aronia is the common name most often used for Aronia melanocarpa.
Aronia is cold hardy to at least USDA Zone 3.  Its late blooms usually avoid spring frosts.  The plants grow well on any soil as long as it is well-drained.  The optimum pH is slightly acid to neutral.
Mature plants of cultivars selected for fruit production grow up to 8 feet tall with 40 or more shoots.  Selective pruning of the oldest stems on a regular basis or pruning back to a height of three feet ever three to five years is used to renew the plants.
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The fruit and the foliage are not severely affected by insects or diseases.  Birds do not eat the newly ripened fruit but, if not harvested, the fruit will be eaten by birds during the winter (Hardin 1973).
“My plants have never suffered from any disease and I’ve never seen any pest on the foliage or fruit,” said Jan Riggenbach, syndicated columnist who has grown aronia plants in her trial garden in southwest Iowa for more than 30 years (Riggenbach 2008).  Japanese beetles also leave her aronia plants alone (Jan Riggenbach, personal communication, September 5, 2008).
Two years after planting aronia in research plots or commercial fields in western Iowa, the plants usually produces about two pounds of berries per bush.  By the third year, berry production is about 10 to 15 pounds per bush.  Yields levels off at 30 to 40 pounds per plant by the fifth year (Eldon Everhart personal observations 2006-2008).
The violet-black berries are firm, one-quarter inch in diameter, and produced in pendulous, loose clusters of 10 to 30 berries at the ends of the shoots.  The fruit are ripe in late August or early September and have a harvest window of 4 to 6 weeks.  To avoid bird deprivation, the fruit should be harvested as soon as all the fruit has turned dark purple.  The berries can be harvested by hand or with a mechanical harvester (Trinklein 2007).
Aronia berries are high in tannins which puckers you mouth with a dry sensation.  They are also high in sugar (17 to 22 brix) with a pH of 4.5 to 5.  They can be eaten fresh or preserved by freezing or drying.  Fresh or frozen berries can be used in baked goods or used like any other berry.  Many products are made from the berries including aronia wine, juice, tea, syrup, and candy.  The berries are also used to flavor and color yogurt, sorbet, milk, and other products.
Aronia berries are high in vitamins, minerals, and folic acids.  They are one of the richest plant sources of proanthocyanins and anthocyanins (Oszmianski and Wojdylo 2005).
Aronia berries have higher antioxidant content than blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, elderberries, grapes, and raspberries, as well as imports such as the goji and acai.  Medical research has documented many health benefits of aronia berries.  Currently, there is no data in the literature about any unwanted effects of aronia fruits, juice, or extracts (Kulling and Rawel 2008 and 2006).
“Aronia berries top the list of more than 100 foods that have been scientifically tested for antioxidant capacity,” said Dr. Xianli Wu, in an interview published in the Des Moines Register on September 21, 2008.  Dr. Wu is a researcher and assistant professor at the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.  “Researchers have looked at how aronia affects cardiovascular disease, colon and breast cancers, liver failure, and obesity,” said Dr. Wu.  “I believe aronia berries have a huge potential to be a healthy food,” he said.  “Why people don’t produce them or market them, I don’t know.”  (Sagario 2008)
The interest in “eating healthy” has led to the phenomenal worldwide growth in the popularity of aronia berries and products made from them.  This in turn is leading to the planting of aronia as an alternative cash crop in the Midwest (Trinklein 2007).
Aronia is not a new crop.  It has been grown as a commercial crop in most Eastern European countries since the 1950s.  Large scale commercial cultivation of aronia started in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s, and reached 43,984 acres in 1984 (Kask 1987).  According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Warsaw, Poland, there were 11,119 acres in Poland in 2004.  One year later the number had grown to 12,355 acres.  One Polish company alone sold 40,000 tons of aronia juice (Kampuse and Kampuss 2006).
In Europe, new business start-ups, that use aronia berries as an ingredient, have increased from just two launches in 1997 to 108 in 2007 (McNally 2008).  In 2008, berries from aronia plants planted six years ago in Scotland, were sold for the first time on High Street in London, England (Clegg 2008).
The aronia berry industry in the United States is in the early stages of development.  Current production is centered in Harrison County in western Iowa but production does not meet the current demand.  The estimated total number of commercial acres of aronia berries currently in the US is 300 to 500.  Many of the new growers are planning to at least double their acres in 2012.  At least 50 new growers are expected to plant aronia in 2011 (Eldon Everhart client contact records).
“Public interest in eating healthy, the antioxidants, and organic products is driving the interest in aronia as a commercial, easy to grow organic crop,” said Charlie Caldwell, an aronia grower in Pottawattamie County.  “We need even more research, especially on production practices and marketing.”  He sees the market increasing, as more people learn about the fruit (Sagario 2008).
Literature Cited:
Clegg, David.  2008.  A Perthshire fruit growing company is claiming to be the first in Scotland to grow the healthiest fruit in the world.  The Courier, Dundee, Scotland, August 29.
Hardin, James W.  1973.  The enigmatic chokeberries (Aronia, Rosaceae).  Bulletin of the Botanical Club 100(3): 178-184.
Kampuse, S. and K. Kampuss.  2006.  Suitability of raspberry and blackcurrant cultivars for utilization of frozen berries in dessert and for getting of products with high contents of bio-active compounds.  NJF seminar 391.
Kask, K.  1987.  Large-fruited black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa).  Fruit Varieties Journal 41: 47.
Kulling S.E. and H.M. Rawel.  2008.  Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) – A Review on the Characteristic Components and Potential Health Effects.  Planta Medica 74(13):1625-1634.
McNally, Alex.  2008.  Demand for superfruit aronia rockets.  Decision News Media. January 8.
Oszmianski, Jan and Aneta Wojdylo.  2005.  Aronia melanocarpa phenolics and their antioxidant activity.  European Food Research and Technology 221(6): 809-813.
Riggenbach, Jan.  2008.  Midwest native black chokeberry is a favorite.  Globe Gazette, October 10.
Sagario, Dawn.  2008.  It’s the berries.  The Des Moines Register, September 21.
Trinklein, David  2007.  Aronia: A Berry Good Plant.  Missouri Environment & Garden 13(9):86.
More Aronia Information
For help starting a commercial aronia plantation or to schedule a power point presentation about aronia for a group contact:
Dr. Eldon Everhart
Everhart Horticulture Consulting
Phone: 712-254-4035
Email: [email protected]
Website: http://www.hortconsulting.com/
Blog: http://aroniainamerica.blogspot.com/

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