Navajo children played with dice made from the dense wood of mountain mahogany.
Navajo children played with dice made from the dense wood of mountain mahogany.

There's a small tree dotting the American West that stockmen like to call sweetbrush. That's because domestic cattle, sheep, and goats (along with deer and other wild creatures) relish its foliage in the warmer months. In winter, after the leaves have fallen, twigs become the main course.

This culinary cellulose delight is the mountain mahogany tree (Cercocarpus spp.), which appears in three varieties. Each, though, shares many of the same characteristics. The short, stout trunk can attain a 40' height, although you'll commonly find them at 15' with many a twist. Contorted branches also mark this tree, giving it a totally unkempt look.

In spite of the mountain mahogany's odd, disheveled image, the wood rates as quite attractive. In fact, the stocks' deep brown color and hardness prompted the mahogany name for the species, which isn't a mahogany at all. You'll find the wood heavy, too. Freshly cut, it won't float. And although brittle, the wood was frequently utilized by Native Americans for bows.

The Navajos made perhaps the best use of mountain mahogany. An extract of its roots was the primary ingredient for a dye to turn their woolen blankets red. They also employed the fruiting, white-plumed twigs as ceremonial prayer sticks. Short, straight branches, when peeled, were snagless implements for handling the women's weaving threads. Navajo men, though, had the most fun with mountain mahogany. They crafted its wood into long-weaving dice for gaming.

Illustration: Jim Stevenson