The Shawnee News-Star Gardening June 24 2020 Becky Emerson Carlberg How many of you recognize a boxelder, or do you think it is a gigantic poison ivy tree?  This totally native North American tree has gone cosmopolitan and today is found in South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Asia.  Not bad for […]

The Shawnee News-Star Gardening June 24 2020

Boxelder canopy

Becky Emerson Carlberg

How many of you recognize a boxelder, or do you think it is a gigantic poison ivy tree?  This totally native North American tree has gone cosmopolitan and today is found in South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Asia.  Not bad for a brittle, short-lived maple with a natural range that covers the Mississippi Basin into Canada with a few stands in the western US as well as Mexico. 

Carolus Linnaeus named the boxelder 'Acer negundo' in Latin.  Acer is Latin for sharp or acrid, which maple sap becomes if harvested too late. The negundo is Sanskrit for that which protects the body from ailments.  Linnaeus may have borrowed negundo from 'Vitex negundo' a different plant but with similar leaves. 

The poor tree in the soapberry family suffers from a leaf identity crisis.  The light green leaves are not typically maple shaped.  Three leaflet compound leaves are most common.  They do resemble the leaves of poison ivy, the 'three leaflets let it be' plant.  The leaves resemble the leaves of the white ash tree.  The leaves also look like the leaves of elderberry (Sambucus), a flowering shrub which produces the good-for-you juice to keep your immune system happy. 

The soft, light interior grade wood of the boxelder is similar to white birch. Close-grained and creamy white, the wood may have raspberry streaks from fungal activity which woodturners drool over. Boxelder makes decent toys, crates, charcoal, light-weight slack barrels used in rodeos, inexpensive furniture and, you guessed it, boxes!  So, combine a few common words about this tree and you have a maple called boxelder or ash-leaved maple.  Not the least bit confusing!

Boxelders are dioecious, just like us, with males and females. The female blossoms turn bright green when pollinated. Just think if humans did that.  The fruits develop into pairs of samaras and hang on long stalks throughout the autumn into winter. When ready, the maple helicopters whirl to the ground. 

The boxelder has a few drawbacks.  It produces abundant baby boxelders, sheds branches and leaves in winds or ice, and has a short life of maybe 60 years unlike its sugar maple cousin that can live 300 to 400 years!  The tree was planted along streets and in windbreaks until the early 20th century.  Then there are boxelder bugs.

Boxelder female trees produce a scent attractive to boxelder bugs.  You've seen them.  This true bug has a dark brown/black oval shaped back and wings outlined in red veins.  They feed, lay eggs and develop on boxelders and other maples.  If disturbed, the insects can release a pungent strong-smelling odor.  During cooler times of the year they cluster together and sun themselves, but are relatively harmless and little damage is done to the maples. 

Not so with horses.  If a horse eats too many boxelder seeds, it can die of an unusual muscle disease caused by the toxin in the seeds. Why would a healthy horse eat boxelder seeds when there is green grass, oats or hay?  Who knows what appeals to a bored horse who has seen too many cooking shows.  

On the positive side, the boxelder, a fast-growing inhabitant of stream banks and moist areas, is great for stabilizing edges of creeks and provides shelter for wildlife.  It can endure extremes and, when established, tolerate severe drought. The trees form a lumpy rounded crown and range in height from 30 to 70 feet.  The boxelder thrives in western US and Canada where the sugar maple doesn't, why it is also called Manitoba maple.  Just like the sap of its sweet cousin, boxelder sap can be made into syrup and sugar.  Forty gallons of sugar maple sap or 60 gallons of less sweet boxelder sap boils down to one gallon syrup. The dark boxelder syrup tastes like sorghum. 

One unhappy Oregon couple evaporated their maple sap to three tablespoons of dark, bitter syrup.  Seems the sap was harvested too late at a time the maples were breaking dormancy.  The buds were swelling and beginning to break open.  Because of chemical changes in the tree, the sap turns green and becomes bitter.  In the maple syrup industry, the off-taste is called buddy-flavor.  Think of a burnt Tootsie Roll.

The boxelder is easy to cultivate.   Put it in difficult corners of the landscape where other trees don't thrive, unless shady.   This maple likes the sun, thus the reason why my boxelder looks so sad.   The neighboring pine trees have shot above the boxelder, grabbing all the light.   The boxelder stubbornly hangs on, determined not to give up.   The mushrooms and woodpeckers love it.

Boxelder with mushrooms

'Many eyes go through the meadow, but few see the flowers in it.'  Ralph Waldo Emerson