Plant of the Week: Viking Black Chokeberry

This hungry sparrow doesn't mind the astringent taste of the Viking black chokeberry. Photo by Steven Severinghaus

The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today.

This week we share one of our gardeners’ current favorites with you.

The Viking black chokeberry, Aronia melanocarpa 'Viking,' is a North American native shrub with a range extending south from Canada through the Ohio River Valley. It is a deciduous shrub that grows to six feet in height on average with a tendency to sucker and form colonies. A member of the rose family (Rosaceae), it is often over shadowed by its more famous cousins: apples, plums, cherries, raspberries, strawberries, pears, and – of course – roses. The common name "black chokeberry" comes from the astringent taste of the purple berries. The specific epithet melanocarpa also describes the fruit, melano meaning black and carpa meaning fruit. Black chokeberry is often mistaken for chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), another closely related American native.

The black chokeberry makes a great addition to any native garden. It grows easily on most sites ranging from well-drained to heavy clay soils. The ability of black chokeberry to adapt to different garden conditions makes it an excellent choice for either naturalistic plantings or highly maintained shrub borders. Although it will tolerate part shade, the best fruit production takes place in full sun.

In spring, clusters of small white flowers appear beside the plant's shiny dark-green leaves. The autumn color is spectacular, with orange and burgundy leaves that contrast with the dark purple berries. After the plant's leaves drop, the persistent berries hold on until late winter. These berries provide sustenance for hungry birds during harsh winters after other food sources have been exhausted.

The cultivar ‘Viking’ was first developed for use in European orchards, and is prized for its dense clusters of large fruits with less astringent, more flavorful taste. 'Viking' is also valued for its ability to self-pollinate and resistance to insects and disease. The berries of this cultivar are harvested for use in pies, jams, jellies and wines. [Note: Please don't pick the High Line's plants!] Black chokeberry has also escaped cultivation and become naturalized in many parts of Europe.

You can see black chokeberry in the High Line’s woodland edge, between West 13th Street and West 14th Street.

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