Harvesting chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa)
I've always loved collecting berries and picking fruit, whether they're cultivated or not. But it's especially fun to discover new fruits of which we have an abundance. We missed the cherry season this year and the collection of cherries from two summers ago didn't survive a freezer mishap.
So it's been a nice diversion to acquaint myself with chokeberries, a native shrub here, although the one I discovered had been planted.
A friend, visiting the garden a couple of weeks ago, noticed the shrub near the fence line, abundant with purple fruits. Amid lilacs (overgrown) and other things not yet cleaned up, I had noticed it, but hadn't thought much about it. She asked if the fruits were edible; I said I didn't know as I wasn't sure about the shrub's identity, but thought I'd check into it.
It was clearly in the rose family, as the fruits were characteristic. The leaves also had the look of Aronia (chokecherry), remembered from a long ago planted specimen that never did well in our former Piedmont garden.
And, indeed, this very robust shrub appears to be Aronia melanocarpa, probably one of the cultivars, as a previous gardener here liked to plant fruit trees and shrubs. A plant like Aronia would fit her interest in edibles with health properties (elderberry and sour cherry, for example) in addition to apples, pears, rhubarb and service berries, also planted here.
The fruits were used by indigenous peoples and early settlers, so have a long history as an edible.
So, after reading about Aronia "berries," I tentatively tasted a few fruits. I thought they were worth trying to preserve (they are not particularly tasty fresh, as they're astringent), but I'd read that they make delicious jams, pies, and muffins. And the "berries" have become popular recently as a "superfood"recently as they're full of antioxidants and flavanols. There are multiple Aronia growers associations, both here in Canada and in Maine, and probably other states as well.
The jam, made with apples, is delicious (I'm making a low-sugar version), with a delightful astringent aspect that encourages me to contemplate its healthy aspects. It's not the kind of jam you'd give as a gift, as I expect it's a bit of an acquired taste, but it's one I'm greatly enjoying. I'm planning to freeze the rest of the berries as I collect them, as I've already made enough jam, and some of the astringency is apparently reduced by freezing.
I just wish I could bring some of the jam back to the U.S. this fall. I'll check again, but homemade preserves were not allowed the last time I looked and it's a lot easier to tell the border guard that you don't have anything fresh!