One of the few deciduous trees native to this area is the box elder, Acer negundo, also known as the ash-leaved maple. It is an interesting tree that has made its way all across the Great Plains with a little help from mankind.
People brought this tree to their early homesteads and planted it in yards as windbreaks around their homes. It is still found in many yards and along many plains water courses.
The box elder receives little respect from foresters for they consider it a worthless tree. It has soft, brittle wood, which causes the trees to break in wind storms and heavy, wet spring snows, but to make up for this, it is fast growing, both heat and cold tolerant, and relatively drought tolerant.
It replaces itself by seed easily and therefore grows where many other broad-leaved trees could not. The fact that it replaces itself from seed and grows quickly makes up for its short life, and it survives the severe temperature variations on the plains with only a bit of extra water, be it from an intermittent water course or the last bit of much used, dirty water from the prairie wives’ dishpans or scrub pails.
It was relatively popular as a yard tree around the turn of the 19th century at the time my father was planting the yard at his farm. Therefore, I grew up with two box elder trees. I knew their bent and twisted forms, and raked their fallen leaves and seeds. These two box elders were at the edge of the lawn not far from the barn.
Therefore, I frequently looked down on them from the hay-loading platform where I often read on rainy summer days. Their green crowns were often a favored roosting place for crows, robins and pigeons. I was fascinated to look down on birds I usually looked up at.
The seeds of box elders are typical maple seeds, known as samaras or keys. They consist of two seeds that grow together but are easily separated, and each seed has a broad, papery wing that allows them to float some distance from the tree when it is blown off.
The wings are rather close together on the box elder, making an inverted V shape. However, on some maples they grow out more horizontally, so they are much like the old keys that were used to wind clocks. The seeds are large and hang on the bare trees all winter.
The leaves of box elder are compound with three to seven pairs of leaflets along the mid vein, which looks like a leaf stem. They look much like an ash leaf, and this explains the other name of ash-leaved maple. Box elder is the only species of maple that has a compound leaf. The name box elder comes from its white wood, which was sometimes used for boxes and pallets.
Perhaps the greatest importance of the box elder is that of providing winter food for evening grosbeaks. These much-admired yellow and black winter finches are birds of the coniferous forests of Canada. When for unknown reasons, some years these pines do not produce a good crop of cones, these colorful birds drift southward looking for food.
The great plains had little to offer for trees of any kind were scarce there, but the box elder was slowly following the water courses across the plains and the big seeds of the box elder were becoming available. The evening grosbeaks found these seeds delicious and nutritious. Box elder seeds also provide winter food for some other birds, squirrels and other small rodents.
There is a small cluster of box elders growing along Little Cub Creek just above its junction with Cub Creek. There are a much greater number growing along Bear Creek at the Lair O’ the Bear open space, and this is true of most of the valleys opening out onto the plains. Like all plants that bear seeds, they must first have flowers.
The flowers of the box elder are formed in a long drooping spray of small flowers. They bloom very early in the spring, before or just as the new leaf buds are opening. The flowers are beautiful, dangling clusters of purple, maroon and chartreuse.
Petals, stamens and stems are all highly colored, and I believe they would make an exceptionally lovely pair of earrings.
Box elders also yield a sweet sap, which produces a “maple syrup.” The sap is not quite as sweet as that of the sugar maple, so it takes more of it to produce the same amount of syrup. However, since sugar maples do not grow on the plains, the box elder was appreciated by those who lived there.
Donald Culross Peatie admired the box elder for what it was and said that along the many tributaries of the Missouri, it became the tree of the west.