ranks high in Rodney Dangerfield diction - it dont
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 boxelders
fate in a horticulturalists 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 plants 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 plants common name. The low-grade
wood used for making boxes or in rough construction, may be
also figured into the common name, but the trees soft,
sappy wood was often bypassed for better hardwoods.
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 birds 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 boxelders 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 trees numerous cracks and crevices.
The bugs, in their feeding, dont 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
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.