Chokeberry had a stranglehold on James Hardin’s affection.
In 1973, James W. Hardin wrote an article called The Enigmatic Chokeberries. While I was unable to find this treatise on his beloved plant, I can relate to his fondness for a lanky shrub that is currently blooming in woodlands Islandwide.
Chokeberry is not picky about habitat. While usually found in wet areas, it can also endure sandy soils, is drought and salt tolerant, and can even grow in polluted areas. Look for its loose clusters of five-petaled white flowers with pink stamens protruding from their middle. Its glaborous (hairless) leaves have toothed edges, and it is the only shrub that has small black glands along the mid-rib of its leaves. Don’t try to find these black spots with your naked eye: use a hand lens or magnifier to see this unique feature.
There are three native species of chokeberry found here — red, black and purple. This shrub is not to be confused with another similarly named plant, the chokecherry. Chokecherry is more closely related to black cherry trees and has distinct differences that I won’t smother you with right now.
It turns out that James Hardin was a man truly ahead of his time. While now is the time to observe and appreciate the flowering chokeberries, which bloom for about three weeks, the health-minded would do well to mark the location of these shrubs for later reference.
When the flowers are long gone and summer has begun to fade, find those marked shrubs. The chokeberries produce copious amounts of beauteous berries, berries that hold the key to health.
You’ll find these luscious pendulous clusters of purple-black fruit hanging from a reddish stem. They’re a bit misnamed, though, because you shouldn’t find yourself choking on these berries. The name chokeberry comes from the bitter, astringent taste of these berries — usually a warning sign in wild foods — that causes even many birds to avoid them. The ruffed grouse and cedar waxwing will partake of this fruit, but other birds stay away from it until late winter, when there is little else to eat.
Humans, however, will find that the berries are wonderfully healthy.
Pick berries with caution, however, or you may be picking your poison. Do be afraid of misidentifying the chokeberry, as there are some poisonous berries out there.
For starters, chokeberries contain more antioxidants than blueberries, cranberries, or even pomegranates. Research is beginning to show that the consumption of these berries helps those with heart conditions and urinary tract infections. They contain a compound called quinic acid that is beneficial for the urinary system. Sufferers can put aside the cranberry juice and look for chokeberry juice, since chokeberries have ten times more of this compound than cranberries.
To make the berries more palatable, try making jam, jelly, sorbet, wine, salsa, tea, syrup, baked goods or ice cream: recipes can be found on the internet or in foraging books. And you can expect to see this berry’s juice sold commercially in the future: marketers, being no fools, have come up with an alias that will be easier for the public to swallow than chokeberry. Look for Aronia berry products (Aronia is the name of the plant’s genus, so Linnaeus would approve).
When you see it in the market, remember that you heard about it here first. Also remember that, on the Island, Aronia is all around you, in its original packaging, and under its original name.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.