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Natural North Dakota

Boxelder

We have a couple boxelder trees near our house. With the leaves all off the tree this time of year, its shape is quite distinctive. Plus the trees are either male or female, and the female trees tend to hold on to their fruits well into the winter, making them rather conspicuous.

Boxelder, also known as Manitoba maple, is a maple (Acer negundo). That is the same genus as the other maples in our region. If you look closely at the fruits, you can easily see the resemblance to other maples.

Boxelder is a North Dakota native, and can be found throughout the state on a variety of habitats ranging from mixed stands along rivers and streams, to woody draws and hillsides as well as in shelterbelts and occasionally as an ornamental. Its native range is roughly from Saskatchewan south to Texas then eastward to New England and Georgia.

Boxelder has a rather poor reputation, occasionally characterized as “trashy.” They are rather fast growing and short-lived trees, often with irregularly shaped or contorted branches. Plus the branches are generally weak and subject to breakage, often facilitating heart-rot. Then there is the association with boxelder bugs, one of our more common nuisance insects. However, because boxelder is cold and drouth hearty, it has been widely planted in shelterbelts here in the Northern Great Plains.

Boxelder, however, does have some interesting value for wildlife. The seeds of boxelder are important food for a variety of animals ranging from squirrels to songbirds. And those heart-rot ridden trees often support whole communities of invertebrates such as insects and spiders to help feed many small mammals and birds. And of course as the heart rot often leads to the formation of suitable nesting cavities for a wide array of cavity nesting birds such as chickadees and nuthatches, woodpeckers, wood ducks, and kestrels or sparrow hawks.  

There is another aspect of boxelder that you might find useful. Remember that boxelder is a maple. Come next spring, you could try making some boxelder syrup. Remember Euell Gibbons and his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus? Gibbons notes in the book that all members of the genus Acer can be used to make maple syrup, even boxelder. He goes on to say that he assembled a panel of tasters that couldn’t detect any major differences between several species of maples, including boxelder.

So be on the lookout for this interesting tree in your area. Then next spring you could even make a batch of boxelder syrup…er maple syrup!

~Chuck Lura

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