Monday, November 13, 2017

Boxelder—pest, pleaser, or provider?

Yesterday I went to check on “my” boxelder, the one I’m following. I’m limited to weekend visits, as weekdays belong to the Gustav A. Larson Company, which rents warehouse space next to the tree. Before I show you what I found, have a look at the road construction project en route, now almost a year ahead of schedule! It has been fascinating to watch.
This machine is laying down a bikepath as I write!

Now on to the tree. First, its habitat ...
The boxelder grows in a corner formed by north- and east-facing warehouse walls. The sun has moved far enough south now that it's shaded most (maybe all) of the time. Since last month, it has dropped most of its leaves; just a few dead ones hang on. Another difference: this visit was snow-free. In fact, we’ve been snow-free for almost a week, and it has warmed up enough to feel like fall again. I took advantage of the nice day to examine the boxelder more closely.
Dead leaves: petioles stay on longer than blades. Note opposite branching.
Oppositely arranged buds.
Sucker shoots up against the wall.
Urban habitat wouldn’t be complete without trash. I predict trash composition will change from month to month thanks to our wind. This time I found an inspiring message :-)

Following a tree provides the opportunity to learn about that species. My first stop along the knowledge pathway was the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), “a consortium of natural history and botanical libraries that cooperate to digitize the legacy literature of biodiversity held in their collections and to make that literature available for open access ...” It’s my go-to place for interesting, fun, and often surprising information about plants. I like the emphasis on early pioneering botany, especially accounts by the explorers themselves.

A BHL search on Acer negundo returned 3843 hits. I sorted by date, browsed at the extremes, and found two interesting and contrasting accounts of the boxelder.

In 2013, Euardo Franceschi and Silvia Boccanelli reported that “spontaneous little forests” (núcleos boscosos espontáneos) of boxelder trees have developed in native Pampean grasslands in J. F. Villarino Park (Santa Fe, Argentina). Boxelder is a non-native and invasive pest species in Argentina, as well as in central Europe, China and Australia. In the Villarino grasslands, it’s clearly thriving. The researchers found overstories often to 40 ft in height (12 m), with boxelder common enough to be a dominant. Seedlings and small saplings were common in the understory, suggesting boxelder is there to stay in the absence of aggressive eradication.

François André Michaux, 1851; source.
At the other end of the BHL time line, I found boxelder in the The North American sylva, or A description of the forest trees of the United States, Canada and Nova Scotia by the pioneering French botanist and explorer François André Michaux (1770-1855). He made several trips to North America to botanize, beginning in 1785. In 1806, following detention in the Bermudas after being captured by the British, Michaux spent three years studying and collecting North American trees. After returning to France, he compiled his monumental work on the North American sylva—three volumes published 1818-1819. It was later translated by Augustus L. Hillhouse; this is the version I found at the BHL.

Below, “Box Elder or Ash leaved Maple” Plate XLVI. Courtesy Linda Hall Library Digital Collections. LHLDC was a great discovery. It provides online access to “significant rare and fragile materials” with free downloads.
Michaux explained that Ash leaved Maple was “a perfectly appropriate denomination,” but that general usage forced him use Box Elder, “though absolutely insignificant of any characteristic property of the tree.” Ash leaved Maple is perfectly appropriate because Acer negundo is indeed a maple, and the leaves are pinnately compound, looking a lot like those of ash trees. As is true for all maples, boxelder leaves are opposite on the stems. “The barren and fertile flowers [male and female] are borne on different trees” (i.e., dioecious).

Michaux found boxelder to be uncommon east of the Alleghenies, but “west of the mountains, on the contrary, it is extremely multiplied,” and abundant on floodplains. Especially interesting was his account of the reception the boxelder received in Europe post-introduction. Apparently humans jump-started its European invasion:
“Subsequently, it has spread into Germany and England, where it is in great request for adorning pleasure grounds, on account of the rapidity of its growth, and the beauty of its foliage, whose bright green forms an agreeable contrast with the surrounding trees.”
There are other reasons to like boxelders. Some botanists note that invasive species like boxelders provide ecosystem services in urban environments. Being an admirer of underdogs and the under-appreciated, I suspect I will become a fan of this tree.

Check out this month's tree-following news, kindly hosted by The Squirrelbasket. And consider joining us ... it's fun!


Franceschi, E., and Boccanelli, S. 2013.  Floristic-structural analysis of spontaneous little forests in the J. F. Villarino park (Santa Fe, Argentina). Bol. Soc. Argent. Bot. 48: 301-314.

Michaux, FA. (translated by Hillhouse, AL). The North American sylva, or A description of the forest trees of the United States, Canada and Nova Scotia ...


  1. What a lovely tree - and in such an unexpected place. I wouldn't dare follow it in case the industrial people decide it's a "weed" and accidentally or purposely remove it!
    This is a species I keep on forgetting - there is a small one in our nearest park and when I see the colourful leaves and maple-type keys I can never remember its name or identity. I'll try again next time I see it!
    I love your historical/botanical information and the shots of your surroundings.
    All the best :)

    1. oopppss! I knew who I was replying to but my fingers didn't, having just replied to PPs. Try again:
      Thanks, Pat! Your comment on "industrial people" made me think about possibly meeting one of them and explaining tree-following ... Ha Ha! People are generally friendly here so it could well be fun.

  2. It's really quite amazing that trees manage to grow and survive at such strange and unlikely places.

    1. Erika, I think that is what attracts me to this particular tree ... a tough urban waif able to grow where others can't.

  3. Boxelders are OK. Wow, that one by the building doesn't have much room! I wonder what will become of it over time. We had Boxelders in our backyard in Central Wisconsin when I was growing up. They were excellent climbing trees and provided welcome shade. The Boxelder bugs were a little too plentiful, since they crawled into the house during some seasons and were quite thick in some rooms. I imagine they are a good food source for some wildlife, particularly birds, although I understand they put out a foul smell that warns away many predators. Nature is fascinating!

    1. Thanks for the boxelder bug story, Beth. A friend shared tales of similar experiences growing up in Kansas. His mother hated the annual invasion of boxelder bugs--she called them Democrat bugs!

  4. It's a tree new to me. I'll need to work out a way to find out if there are any around here. And of course I specially like yours because it's a tree version of a street plant.

    1. Lucy, you were certainly on my mind, what with tree-following a street-plant! Cheers.