Black chokeberry is a must for the garden insectary

A bumblebee foraging on the flowers of black chokeberry.  From a distance, flowering plants appear frosted with white flowers; on close inspection, clustered pink anthers add a touch of subtle beauty to each small flower.
Photo courtesy of Reeser Manley
A bumblebee foraging on the flowers of black chokeberry. From a distance, flowering plants appear frosted with white flowers; on close inspection, clustered pink anthers add a touch of subtle beauty to each small flower.
Posted June 09, 2011, at 12 p.m.
Last modified June 10, 2011, at 6:09 p.m.

Blooming in early June along roadsides, in the low ground of open coniferous woods, in local swamps, and on dry, sandy hillsides and rocky upland barrens, black chokeberries, Aronia

melanocarpa, fill the air with a musky, sweet scent. In these wild places they seldom exceed 3 feet in height, but in the native plant collection at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension office in Ellsworth, they grow in full sunlight, their roots in compost-enriched soil, to a height of 6 feet.

Suckering profusely, each shrub consists of multiple slender stems held stiffly erect, the upper two-thirds covered in glossy, dark-green leaves frosted with white flowers. The five petals of each half-inch flower surround a cluster of pink anthers held high on extended filaments. The flowers are pollinator magnets. In a few minutes of close observation, I recognized two species of bumblebee, two fly species, a tiny wasp of unknown identity, and several solitary bee species, all moving chokeberry pollen around as they went about their foraging.

Just as busy trying to get decent photographs of it all, I kept thinking this plant is a must for the garden insectary.

In early September to late November, the shrubs bear loose clusters of glossy, black berries, fruits that contain higher levels of antioxidants than any other temperate fruit, including blueberries. This feature has prompted increasing interest in black chokeberries among small

fruit growers in the United States. Whole berries are canned, the juice used in making jelly or

added to apple juice, and extracts of the berries used as natural colorants in other foods.

In the wildlife garden, black chokeberries are eaten by grouse, black-capped chickadees, cedar waxwings, black bears, red foxes, rabbits and white-footed mice. I read that the astringent taste of the berry (the characteristic responsible for its common name) makes it a food of last resort among winter birds. I have noticed that many berries do shrivel on the stems, but I also have watched robins feast on ripe berries when other fruits were still locally abundant.

As a landscape plant, the merits of black chokeberry have been sung since its introduction to Western gardens in the 1700s. In 1972, Aronia melanocarpa received the Royal Society’s Award of Merit, described as a “splendid shrub for naturalistic plantings, especially on the edge of woodlands.” Others have recommended it for use in mass plantings, informal hedges, pond plantings and as a spot of color in the mixed border.

I recommend it to the insectary.

The Garden Insectary

Aphids (and other herbivores) in the garden are good news, assuming that you also can count their predators as part of the garden’s wildlife. Hoverflies, lacewings and ladybugs all prey on aphids. Hoverflies also eat mealybugs and other soft-bodied pests, while lacewings eat scales and mites.

Populations of these beneficial insects can be cultivated by creating an insectary planting in your garden. Insectaries are small, undisturbed patches or hedgerows of plants that attract the predatory insects by providing the pollen and nectar resources that they require. For example,

Marjorie and I enjoy nasturtiums and place them in pots about the garden. Aphids like nasturtiums, too, so to make sure the aphids do not get out of hand we plant cosmos about the garden, a plant favored by both hoverflies and lacewings. The predators control the aphids to the point where we seldom notice any actual plant damage.

Other plants to include in your garden insectary include members of the carrot family such as fennel, coriander, dill and Queen Anne’s lace; they are used by a wide variety of predators. Composite flowers, including sunflower, cosmos, yarrows and daisies, will attract lacewings, ladybugs and parasitic wasps, while alyssum, a member of the brassica family, will catch the attention of hoverflies. In fact, all culinary members of the brassica family, including broccoli and cabbage, will attract beneficials if a few plants are left to flower in the garden.

Plan your insectary for successive bloom from early spring through fall, providing nectar throughout the season. This will not only satisfy the needs of many beneficial insects, but also

provide color in the garden.

A garden insectary should be thought of as a long-term permanent component of your garden. Results are not instant but the benefits to your garden are cumulative. As resident populations of beneficial insects become established, your garden will become a balanced environment with a complex food web of plants, insects, birds and, of course, the gardener.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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