It’s been a bountiful berry season, with an unceasing flow from strawberries and honeyberries to rasp- and blueberries, followed by blackberries, with mulberries somewhere in the mix too. Mid-August means elderberry picking season, of which we put up gallons of honey-sweetened juice as a Winter tonic. But all these berries we grow at a homestead scale; unless there’s a massive bounty of them, we don’t have enough to sell.
There are a few berries we are getting into growing on a farm scale, and if you’re familiar with one of them, you may wonder why in the world we chose it! It’s the humble native Aronia melanocarpa–Aronia for short–also known as chokeberry. That name says it all, as this berry is not known for its fresh eating qualities. In fact, when eaten fresh it is slightly astringent, causing you to feel as though the saliva has been sucked out of your mouth.
But if we are to let our food be our medicine, aronia has some very appealing qualities. A 2015 review in Food Technology & Biotechnology noted that previous research had found aronia to have the highest polyphenol content of 143 plants. It’s also high in anthocyanins and other anti-oxidants—with higher levels than blueberries–meaning it’s helpful in repairing damaged cells in our bodies. A 2004 study found that aronia extract inhibited the growth of colon cancer cells. Studies from 2012-2016 found that aronia extracts had anti-diabetic affects, fighting insulin resistance and reducing inflammation. It also reduces blood pressure and can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Eating aronia berries will make you more beautiful and smarter too! Just kidding. You’re already smart and beautiful.
Seems like these days you can find a diet study to support whatever you want it to say, like “Donuts promote heart health!” (Funded by the Donut Producers Association). So who knows, maybe these health studies are bunk. And I’ve already told you the berries are terrible for fresh eating, so why bother?
From a farming standpoint, of all the fruit we grow, aronia is the easiest and shows the most promise for abundance. This year was our first real yield from our young bushes, but it was impressive, with even small bushes each yielding several pounds of fruit. And unlike the other fruit we grow, we don’t have to be so hyper-vigilant about pests and diseases or risk losing the whole crop. Birds don’t seem to eat it, insects don’t bother it, and it seems untouched by disease. (I probably just jinxed myself by writing that).
Aronia is great for processing. We throw the berries into a steam juicer, mix in honey and lemon juice, and add the resulting concentrate to fizzy water for a homemade soda. This same concentrate is great on ice cream and yogurt, and the berries are also tasty in muffins. Of course, aronia berries make great jam. It’s amazing how a bit of cooking and sweetener can make the berries so much more appealing.
Since we’ve already frozen all of this year’s crop, we’ll most likely be selling it as juice concentrate in our on-farm store – we’ll let you know when it’s ready! Next year we’ll have fresh berries available too, for your own culinary experimenting. Aronia has long been valued by Native Americans, and in more recent decades by Europeans; it’s about time the rest of us learned how to use this native, easy-to-grow, nutrient-dense berry!