Aronia at harvest time
Description and site preference
Type and size – multi-stemmed shrub, 6-8 feet
Hardiness zone – 3-7
Exposure – full sun, part shade
Soil – wide range
Drainage – moderate to well-drained
Years to harvest – 2-3
Maintenance – low
Life of planting – 30+ years
Machine harvest potential – high
Suitable markets – juice, value-added products, ingredient in other products
Aronia in bloom. The larger ‘Viking’ is in the foreground and the smaller ‘Nero’ is in the background.
Nutritional highlights – superfruit, highest in antioxidant activity
Adaptability – high
Pest issues – minimal
Invasive potential – native
Environmental benefits – attracts pollinators and other beneficial insects
Shared management – high in hedgerow plantings
Shared equipment – high, including mechanical harvesting
Shared processing – high, similar to other small fruits
Co-marketing – high with other value-added fruit products
Integration potential – very good
Aronia is a grower-friendly superfruit that would make an ideal nucleus for a perennial integrated cropping system.
History and background
Aronia also comes in red (A.arbutifolia) and purple (A.prunifolia), but the dark purple is the most widely adopted and of primary commercial interest as a fruit crop. It is a multi-stemmed shrub similar in appearance to blueberries and currants, which allows for mechanical harvest in the same manner.
Aronia is a native American fruit indigenous to the Great Lakes region, used by Native Americans as a meat preservative, among other things. It has recently been discovered to have natural anti-bacterial and anti-fungal activity. Immigrant settlers did not adopt it as a fruit for fresh consumption because its high tannin content left a dry mouth sensation. It was adapted as an attractive landscape plant and wildlife food source, taken to Europe and naturalized for that purpose and soon discovered anecdotally to have significant health benefits, which have recently been scientifically substantiated (see The Power of Nature in References section). In Europe, breeders selected cultivars for superior fruiting qualities, and a small commercial industry arose there 1970s. When Carandale started their test plot in 2002, Aronia was newly re-discovered as a potential fruit crop in the U.S.
Observations at Carandale Farm
- As a native species, it has proven to be adaptable to the Carandale region.
- It has co-evolved in their region and is not an invasive threat.
- Aronia does not appear to have any significant disease or insect pest issues (see below).
- It is fruitful and even with minimal fertility input, projected yields for the cultivar ‘Viking’ reached 10,000 pounds by year five.
- Fruit quality for the fresh market is low (due to tannin).
- Fruit quality in terms of health benefits is high. Aronia has the highest antioxidant activity of any fruit (approximately 3times that of blueberries).
- It is known to be a good insectory plant.
- Aronia ripens in late-August and early September. It has a long shelf life of several months in refrigerated storage.
- Aronia could provide economic justification for processing facilities that could be shared with other small fruits having similar processing needs.
Recommendations from Carandale Farm
This is the first little known fruit from the Carandale test plot taken to the next level of commercial production. It is a relatively low maintenance crop with high processing versatility but low fresh fruit appeal. There will be marketing challenges based on lack of recognition and fresh market appeal, but its processing versatility and nutritional profile gives it great potential as an economically sustainable crop for commercial fruit growers. It may be especially profitable in evolving local/regional marketing systems where social and environmental sustainability are recognized as important features. The Midwest Aronia Association is a great source for more information about aronia.
Knowledge and application of good cultural management practices will be essential for economic success. Even minor pest issues can become major in a mono-cultural environment. That said, Aronia should be a major component of a diverse ecological system that benefits from and contributes to symbiotic relationships.
Aronia has apomictic tendencies, so plants from seed are often genetic clones. However, to assure uniformity for commercial purposes, use plants propagated by vegetative cuttings or meristem propagation methods. Carandale prefers meristem (or micro-propagated) plants. They are more vigorous and produce more canes (stems) for an earlier return on investment (though some of this may be offset by higher plant cost).
Because it has only recently been considered as an economically sustainable fruit crop, very few cultivars have been selected for this purpose. Most selections have been made in Europe based on a limited amount of genetic variability. There is a vast amount of genetic material available in the U.S. where Aronia is a native species. There have already been selections for landscaping purposes. At least two breeding programs (at the University of Connecticut overseen by Dr. Mark Brand and at UW-River Falls by Dr. Brian Smith) are under way to improve fruiting, adaptability, nutritional profile and consumer preference for commercial purposes.
Carandale is evaluating the European cultivars ‘Viking’ and ‘Nero’ that were selected for fruiting characteristics and readily available in 2003. Five plants of each variety were purchased from Northwoods Nursery (see One Green World) in 2003 for the open space trial and again in 2006 for a shade tolerance trial.
There is little difference between fruit quality and adaptability of these two cultivars, but there is a structural difference. ‘Viking’ is a larger, more upright shrub that has higher yield potential because of its size. There may be cultural advantages for the smaller profile of ‘Nero’ under some situations, but DNA testing does not show much genetic variation. This suggests they will react similarly under stress. Both cultivars have proven easier to grow and more resistant to disease and insect pressure than most other fruit crops, but it is unwise to base an entire industry on such limited genetics.
Problems may arise requiring more options. Breeding programs could mitigate growing challenges and select more consumer-oriented characteristics, such as lower tannin levels, to make Aronia more marketable.
‘Viking’ and other European selections may not be pure strains of Aronia melanocarpa. Aronia can hybridize readily with Sorbus. One of the Carandale test plot fruits (Ivan’s beauty) is an inter-generic hybrid between Sorbus aucparia and Aronia melanocarpa. It is likely that ‘Viking’ is a backcross to Aronia melancarpa from a similar hybrid. If this is the case, there is the possibility of selecting new Aronia cultivars that have broader adaptability and lower tannin content for better consumer preference.
A clue that ‘Viking’ might not be a pure strain of Aronia melancarpa is that it prefers a dryer upland environment, while most native wild aronia are found in a wetland environment. Genetic testing being done by Dr. Mark Brand at the University of Connecticut also suggests that European selections are not pure strains.
‘Viking’ and ‘Nero’ yield best in full sun, but there is little yield reduction even in half-shade. Plant management and harvest are more difficult in the shade because the plants lean drastically toward sunlight.
Search Aronia at Thieme E-Journals
“Aronia: Native Shrubs with Untapped Potential,” by Mark Brand, University of Connecticut
Midwest Aronia Association
The Power of Nature — Aronia Melanocarpa, by Iwona Wawer, May 2011.