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Ash-Leaved Maple or Boxelder (Acer negundo)

Posted: January 14, 2016

Of all the trees, the one few landscapers ever use is ash-leaved maple. With close observation, these trees often have poor shape and often have multiple-trunks resulting from breakage.

After storms there are often broken branches. They never heal gracefully, and rot in the trunk is a surefire result. This species has male and female trees with seeds persisting through winter until the spring – disseminating seeds almost all year long.

Once, I had an encounter with this, normally shrubby, “grow anywhere,” tree in Ohiopyle State Park. I walked up to it in great wonder and asked myself, “What on earth kind of ash is this?” It was a beautiful, large, open-grown tree, that really, with its pinnately compound leaves, looked exactly like the white ash trees growing close by. Another time, I found one in a small town backyard with a small trickling stream and a nice owner to care for the trees; there was a great beauty of twenty-four-inch diameter Acer negundo.

To tell boxelder and ash apart, both are oppositely branched, new twigs on the maple are quite green all year long. The leaf scars touch from either side of the stem to form a neat and clean looking “epaulets” shape on the twig.

To sing the tree’s praises, I wandered far afield. The name seems to come from the resemblance of the leaf to the elderberry leaf. And the “box” part is either because the wood is very white as is boxwood (Buxus semprivirens) or because they made boxes from the boxelder wood.

This is an extremely hardy native North American species that grows in any soil. It is fast growing (with one inch of diameter growth in one year), is resilient in sprouting if either broken or cut, is very drought-tolerant, and can withstand industrial fumes. It is found everywhere and anywhere. It is not a wetland plant, but thrives in small creek bottomlands.

It is a terrible street tree and, in some “Street Tree Ordinances,” is banned from city use. On the other hand, I have seen beautiful cultivar specimens that have silver/white variegations, golden-edged foliage, and even a weeping form which has been grafted and sold in garden shops. It even has a nice fall color. If maintained in a shrubby form, the green twigs in the winter can be attractive. One popular type has pink leaf margins. With Acer negundo, very acid soils are no problem!

Boxelder is in the Sapindaceae family and shares susceptibility to all of the same insect pests and diseases. One pest is aptly named, the boxelder bug. It is a good food tree for insects and evening grosbeaks seem to especially like its seeds. Boxelder is bee-friendly when in bloom, but I have never seen ash-leaved maple honey advertised.

The wood is soft and fine-grained (it is a maple, remember?) and it has been used to make bowls and other turnings, a sweet maple syrup/sugar, and, when burned, the smoke has a pleasant smell. Boxelder has been used in “sun dance” ceremonies and the boiled bark has been mixed with animal fat as a condiment by Native Americans.

However, I find this archeological fact most interesting – the wood of ash-leaved maple was the wood of choice for flutes aged 620-670 CE, which pre-dates the earliest found in North America by 1200 years.

Contact Information

William C. Paxton
  • Landscape Architect and Consulting Forester