Boxelder

Acer negundo
Family: Sapindaceae

Natural Historyboxelder
Leaves of boxelder
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida

The boxelder is the only North American maple with compound leaves. It is a fast-growing tree with a short life span typically of 75 years but with a maximum of 100. It has a reputation of being a “dirty tree” and is therefore an unpopular ornamental in city settings. The limbs of the boxelder are brittle and break easily. The trunk is susceptible to rot and infestation by boxelder bugs, which may invade nearby homes with the onset of cold weather. Additionally, the leaves turn a dull yellow and fall messily over a long period. The winged seeds fall in a similarly untidy fashion. However, because of its fast growth and tolerance to drought and cold, this species is popular in rural communities as an ornamental for streets and homes.

Habitat & Range

The boxelder is most common on deep, moist soils in floodplains and near rivers, lakes, and swamps.  It is also occasionally found on drier upland soils in association with many hardwoods.  This species if found from Vermont west through western Minnesota; south to Florida and eastern Texas.

Wildlife Use

Many species of birds and mammals such as squirrels utilize the seeds and other portions of the boxelder as food. Some boxelder seeds are even available throughout most of the winter as a result of the species’ delayed seeding habit.

Human Use

Boxelder is of some value as a timber species in the manufacture of cheap wooden products.  It is widely planted as an ornamental and for windbreaks. 


 

Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: Boxelder is a medium-sized tree that reaches heights of 75 to 80 feet, 2 to 4 feet in diameter. Limbs are horizontal and branch to form a wide, rounded, bushy crown.
Leaves: The leaves are pinnately compound, opposite, and deciduous. They generally have 3 to 7 and sometimes 9 leaflets on a central stalk 6 to 15 inches in length. Leaflets are longer than wide at 2 to 4 inches long by 1 to 2 ½ inches wide. Leaflets are ovate to elliptical in outline. Margin is coarsely serrate or slightly lobed. Leaves are light green and slightly pubescent above, while paler below.
Twigs: The twigs are stout, shiny, green or purplish-green. The pith is white and homogeneous.
Bark: Green-gray and smooth on immature trees. Mature trees are shallowly grooved and gray-brown.
Flowers: The species is dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female trees. Male flowers are held on long red stalks that make the trees showy in the springtime. Female flowers are green and in drooping clusters.
Fruit: Fruit is a reddish-brown, V-shaped double samara, which occurs in clusters on slender stalks. The seedcase is long, narrow, and flattened. It is pale yellow in color, maturing in summer and remaining attached in the winter. The wings are thin and about 1 to 1 ½ inches in length. The fruit is found in drooping clusters.
Similar Trees on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:
  • White Ash is the only other tree on our list with opposite, pinnately-compound leaves.
  • When the leaves of boxelder have 3 leaflets, they are easily confused with poison ivy, but the leaves on boxelder are opposite while the leaves on poison ivy are alternate.

 

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