Boxelder: The Rodney Dangerfield of native trees
Boxelder (Acer negundo) is the native tree that draws almost disgust as another native, Cottonwood (Populus deltoides). But why? Why should this member of the maple family draw such ire and disdain?
Sure, it doesn’t always have the best shape, and sure, it attracts Halloween-colored bugs, and, to be honest, we have one that is bearing down hard on our deck, contorting its handrail mightily, but doesn’t it deserve at least some respect? I think so, so let’s learn a bit about it, and why it merits at least a soft spot in your heart.
First, if it’s a maple, what's with its name? Apparently, the common name Box-elder, is a reference to its white wood, which is similar to boxwood and its compound leaves which have some resemblance to some elder species. Other catchy common names for this tree are Ash-, Cut-, or Three-leaf (or -leaved) Maple; Ash Maple; Sugar Ash and River Maple.
This species (which has a number of variants) is native across North America. Our particular boxelder is mostly found in central North America (and most of Michigan). It is usually found along river floodplains with moist, alluvial soils, but it loves sun and is quite adaptable to poor conditions, leading to its common appearance along fencerows, behind garages and in abandoned city lots.
It is a mid-sized, fast-growing, short-lived tree which often has numerous branches leading to a relatively unkempt appearance. I would never suggest that you would want to plant this in your yard (unless you have a barren stream or river bank that needed some fast colonization), but, according to Wikipedia, there are actually a number of cultivars of this noble species that you may be able to find in a suspect nursery near you.
Rick Meader | Contributor
In an attempt to woo you to appreciating this ugly duckling of the native tree world, here are some fun facts about it that are bound to bring a tear of appreciation to your eye.
- Being a member of the maple family, you can make maple syrup from its sap.
- It is one of a handful of maple species that is dioecious, which means you need to have a male and female tree in relatively close proximity to produce viable seeds.
- According to the same Wikipedia account cited above, the Boxelder seed is fed upon extensively by Evening Grosbeaks, beautiful native birds, especially during the winter.
- The Maple Bug or Boxelder bug (Boisea trivittata) is a native bug that lays its eggs on maple and ash trees, but prefers the boxelder. The bug eats the seeds and may pierce plant tissues while feeding, but is not considered to be an agricultural pest. It is a very colorful, harmless bug.
- Also according to Wikipedia, Acer negundo was identified in 1959 as the material used in the oldest extant flutes from the Americas that were made of wood. These early artifacts, excavated by Earl H. Morris in 1931 in the Prayer Rock district of present-day Northeastern Arizona, have been dated to 620-670 CE. The style of these flutes, now known as Anasazi flutes, uses an open tube and a splitting edge at one end. This design pre-dates the earliest known Native American flute (which use a two-chambered design) by approximately 1,200 years.
I can’t say that the Boxelder compares with the stately oaks, or the colorful sugar maples, or the beautiful flowering dogwood, but I can say that even an ungainly, broken down boxelder has a useful role in the native web of life.
In my yard this week, violets, Pennsylvania sedge, Graceful sedge, Redbud, Spicebush, spring beauty, rue anemone and bloodroot are either blooming in their peak or on their last blooming legs. Get out and enjoy the spring flowers everyone, while they’re still here. The cooler weather has helped prolong the blooming period, but it’s still mostly above normal, and the flowers won’t last long.
Rick is a local landscape architect with a special interest in all things natural, including creating designs that include a lot of native plants (and the critters they support). You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.