Bears and backwoodsmen appreciated more than its wood
Small and juicy, the fruits of the black cherry tree attracted both men and animals.

Today's woodworkers know black cherry as one of the finest cabinet woods. Costing nearly as much as black walnut, its price reflects its reputation. But in its use as well as its cost, some things have changed through the centuries.

Early American craftsmen often substituted black cherry for hard-to-get mahogany, wiping the wood with a solution of nitric acid, colored pigment, and red wine to hasten its darkening. In its natural color, black cherry also was popular for the paneling in Pullman cars and carriages. And because the wood took a high polish, it frequently became the stock for caskets. Daniel Boone was said to have made three such caskets, and in his old age occasionally slept in one.

Yet, for all of its woodworking popularity, black cherry was better known on the frontier for its fruit. Mountaineers mixed its juice with rum or brandy for a bitterly pleasant drink called cherry bounce. The plentiful bears of those bygone days also coveted the dark-purple cherries. So determined were they to shimmy up a tree for them that pioneers knew enough to leave the "cherry bears" alone because they became especially cranky when interrupted.

Black-cherry bark was valuable back then, too. It contains a type of astringent acid that for generations contributed to cough and sore-throat medicines. Even by chewing the raw bark the ailing relieved many cold symptoms.

Illustration: Jim Stevenson