If you are lucky enough to live in one of the stream valleys, you may have some box elder trees growing near your house. I hope you will make time to really watch them for at least a few minutes every day.
Not only are box elder trees interesting in their own right, but they also seem to attract many birds, especially when they have many seeds hanging on their branches. Box elder is the name by which most of us know this tree, but botanically, it is known as Acer negundo.
It is commonly called the ash-leaved maple or Manitoba maple. These are the common names because it is the only maple that has leaves like an ash tree and because it grows commonly in Manitoba.
The leaflets are arranged pinnately like an ash, and the leaves are arranged opposite each other on the stem as all maples are. There are two or more forms of the box elder: eastern and western species.
This seems strange to me for I am sure I have read somewhere in the past that the western trees moved across the plains by following the river valleys. However, like most everything, the differences are minor, and the horticulturalists have raised many varieties.
The box elder is not a beautifully formed huge tree, but it will grow under adverse conditions where few trees will grow and usually is about 50 to 60 feet tall. It also grows quickly so is frequently planted on barren property where people want shade quickly.
The fruit is contained in twin samaras, as are all maples, however, they are a bit more convergent, making an inverted V shape rather than widespread wings. The flowers open in early spring before the leaves appear.
They have no petals, but they dangle in clusters on long stems and would make beautiful earrings. The male and female flowers are born on separate trees, and the long dangling stamens with their yellow pollen encircled by wine red sepals are exquisite.
The wood of box elder is not of any importance, but it is lightweight and almost white like that of the box family, which is probably where the common name comes from. However, it is no longer of much use today because we have invented better packaging for most things than wooden boxes.
Since it is a member of the maple family, I was not surprised to find it was used in areas where the sugar maple doesn’t grow to make maple sugar. It is not as sweet as sugar maple, so it takes more sap and more time to boil it down to syrup or sugar.
However, the sap is sweet enough to taste it, and when we were children, we used to break twigs on our trees, so the sap would run and freeze in early spring, making sapsicles, which we used to quench our thirst.
Box elders seem to be very popular with birds. The seeds are large and apparently delicious because many birds and animals eat them. Evening grosbeaks are especially fond of them, and a large flock can strip a tree in short order.
Robins seem to find their branches just right for placing their nests. We usually had at least one pair nesting on our trees each spring, and the foliage is not so dense that it is difficult to see a bird moving through, so it is a likely place to watch for migrants. We have too few deciduous trees to be fussy about which ones we like best, so if you have a box elder, enjoy all the interesting sights it may bring you.