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NATURE HAPPENINGS - NOVEMBER 2001

Boxelder - “it don’t get no respect.”
by Damian Fagan

boxelder leavesBoxelder ranks high in Rodney Dangerfield diction - “it don’t get no respect.” Testimonials such as “Some consider Acer negundo (boxelder) to be a pest in its own right” or “...short-lived, weedy, suckers profusely, refuses to be trained and does not miniature well,” seal boxelder’s fate in a horticulturalist’s handbook. But beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.

Boxelder is a member of the Maple family; hence, the Latin name, Acer, meaning “maple.” The elderberry-like leaves, with three to seven leaflets, provide another part of the plant’s common name. Boxelder is also known as ash-leaved maple, in reference to the compound, ash-like leaves. The sap was “boxed” by the Plains Indians and western settlers, although the sap does not produce a syrup as sweet as a sugar maple. Perhaps this tapping or boxing contributed to the plant’s common name. The low-grade wood used for making boxes or in rough construction, may be also figured into the common name, but the tree’s soft, sappy wood was often bypassed for better hardwoods.

boxelder winged fruit (samara)How ever boxelder came to be named, its fruit, the winged samara, is the characteristic fruit shared by many maples. Like Siamese twins, two seeds are joined together by a tenuous bond. The seeds bear a winged scale that is light and papery, and shaped like a bird’s wing. This aerodynamic design enable the samara to resemble a propeller blade as the seed breaks free of its arboreal bonds and descends to earth in a dizzying spiral. When a breeze is blowing, the seeds can disperse more than one hundred yards from the parent plant.

Here on the Colorado Plateau, boxelders occur in the riparian habitats that line perennial or ephemeral watercourses. The plants can exist on a wide variety of soils, and can withstand drought conditions better than some native riparian species. This adaptability to stressful sites may be boxelder’s only “redeeming quality,” according to some horticulturalists and landscape reclamationists.

Though boxelders grow quickly, up to two feet a year, they are short-lived at 40-60 years. This may be due to the close-grained, weak wood which does not hold up well to the ravages of age. The brittle branches break up in storms and the soft wood easily decays. Perhaps this is why the boxelder bug loves to feed on the tree or find shelter within the tree’s numerous cracks and crevices. The bugs, in their feeding, don’t kill the trees, but during warm weather spells in February, the bugs emerge from their overwintering locations and seem to search out screen doors and windowsills. Another reason why the trees are not recommended in cultivated landscapes.

Even in the fall, when cottonwood leaves turn golden and drop away, boxelder leaves barely change into a dull yellow. These maples do not mimic the brilliant New England autumns of my youth, where forests turned aflame with color. It seems that the process of abscission is too much for the boxelder, and it makes only a half-hearted autumnal attempt.

But for all the perceived faults borne by the boxelder, it is native throughout the southwest. In Utah, boxelders range from 4,000-10,000' in elevation and provide habitat and food resources for numerous wildlife species. Squirrels climb the trees and perilously hang upside down while they clean the pendulous seed chain. Sapsuckers tap into the soft cambium and later on glean the insects that have become trapped in the oozing sap. Ravens and magpies build stick nests in the upper canopy of the tree, where numerous branches provide excellent structure for nest construction. Mule deer browse on leaves and shoots of young trees, as do elk at higher elevations.

So even though “outlawed by local zoning” in certain communities, boxelders are native trees that benefit wildlife and have a usefulness in reclamation projects along degraded streamsides. These characteristics alone should help resolve their stigma as Rodney Dangerfields of the plant kingdom.

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