Ark of Taste
Black Republican Cherry
Prunus avium l.
The Black Republican cherry is relatively small in size, with a rotund shape, deep purple color, firm flesh and intense black cherry flavor. Although it was highly regarded by many growers, it lost favor because of its smaller size and tendency to be slightly astringent when not fully ripe. It is a parent of the Bing cherry, which has long superseded it in commercial cultivation. In the past, the Black Republican was favored for use in black cherry ice cream and yogurt because its color and flavor carried through. Complex and earthy, the rotund, deep purple fruit has notes of herbs, rose and almond. In some cases it still may be found frozen for industrial food productions. Only rarely is it available fresh.
This cherry is representative of a pivotal period in the beginning of the fruit industry of the Pacific Northwestern states. In 1860 the first Black Republican cherry was grown in the Willamette Valley in Oregon by Seth Lewelling*. Lewelling came to Oregon where his brother Henderson had already established a variety of fruit orchards. Henderson Luelling* had brought his family in a wagon to the Oregon Territory in 1847 with nursery stock to begin his trade there. Legend has it that, while other pioneers were attacked by tribes along the trail, the Luellings passed safely because their wagon was full of fruit trees. These trees, nurtured by the Lewelling brothers, ultimately became the basis for the Pacific Northwest fruit industry. Both brothers were nurserymen, Quakers and abolitionists, who were said to have participated in the underground railroad. In promotion of his staunchly abolitionist beliefs, Seth chose the name Black Republican for his fruit. In 1853, Henderson moved his family to Alameda, CA where he established Fruitvale and a new nursery. Seth maintained the Lewelling nursery in Milwaukie, ORnow a suburb of Portlanduntil his death in 1879.
Today, Black Republican cherry plantings are rare, with about 200 acres remaining in older and smaller orchards in The Dalles and Hood River growing districts of Oregon, but also, to a lesser extent, in Washington, California and eastern states. Black Republican is now mainly used as a pollinator in cherry orchards for other varieties.
To lose the Black Republican cherry would be a tragedy both from a historical perspective and a gastronomical one. It is a connoisseur’s cherry that has a rich, concentrated flavor despite its small size. It is highly colored, firmly textured and juicy which makes it perfect for preserving but also for eating fresh when ripe.
This cherry ripens late and is considered a good keeper, shipping and drying well. Cherries are available on the West Coast from late May to early August depending on the location. In The Dalles and Hood River regions of Oregon (where most of the trees are), July is the height of the season.
*In historical accounts, the spelling of the brothers’ name varies