– by David Schroeder
Boxelder (Acer negundo), sometimes called ash-leafed maple, is the weed tree of the maple family. Even though boxelder is the most widely distributed maple in the United States, it is seldom recognized as a maple because of its ash-like compound leaf. In Connecticut it is often found on poor sites, growing in fencerows and along roads. Boxelder is a hardy tree that can grow on a variety of sites and tolerate drought and a wide range of temperatures.
Leaves of boxelder are pinnately compound with 3 to 7 leaflets. The terminal leaflet is often three lobed with a long tapering sharp apex. Twigs are a distinctive green or purple and often have a white coating or bloom. The bark of young boxelders is thin light brown with narrow ridges and shallow fissures that become more deeply furrowed with age.
Boxelder has limited commercial use. It is small (60’ tall at maturity) and short lived (100 years or less), with a trunk that is often irregular and divided at the ground line. In the Mississippi and Ohio bottomlands, where it reaches its best development, it is occasionally used for crates, boxes, pulpwood and fuelwood. Because it is drought resistant and can tolerate very low temperatures, it was planted extensively in the Great Plains as a windbreak or street tree. In the northern prairies of Saskatchewan where trees are scarce, boxelder, known there as Manitoba maple, is utilized as an ornamental and street tree. However, it has a poor form and the wood is weak, so it is undesirable as an ornamental in most places. In some areas where sugar maple won’t grow (i.e. western United States), boxelder has been used to produce maple syrup. But because of the relatively low sugar content of the sap more has to be boiled to produce syrup than when making syrup from sugar maple. The seeds of boxelder are released over a long period of time, providing food for wildlife, particularly birds and squirrels in the winter months.
In Minnesota, where I grew up, boxelder was a common tree. I remember that it attracted large numbers of foul-smelling red and black insects (boxelder bugs) that infested houses in much the same way the Asian ladybug infests our houses in Connecticut. The older kids in our neighborhood used to make whistles using a piece of boxelder branch about six inches long and ¾ inch in diameter. They slipped off a section of bark, made several mysterious cuts in the wood and replaced the bark, producing a high-quality whistle that could be heard a long way. Unfortunately they never shared their secret, so I cannot claim to have even one good use for the maple weed tree.
Drawing by Aline Hansens
This article originally appeared in the June 2004 ECFLA/WDLT Newsletter.