Family: Maple Family (Aceraceae)
Origin and Distribution: Boxelder is a native of North America that can be found growing throughout Ohio. It is a medium-sized tree that is planted as a shade tree and often cultivated indirectly by allowing volunteer sprouts to persist. Preferred habitats include wet lowlands such as river banks, floodplains, and moist disturbed areas. However, boxelder can also be found growing in drier sites such as open woods, fence rows, railroads, ditches, along sidewalks, and in old fields. This maple tree prefers to grow in moist alluvial soil. It is generally intolerant of shade.
Plant Description: This species is a deciduous, woody perennial and an aggressive colonizer that is fast growing but short lived. An identifying feature of boxelder and all other maples are their winged fruits (samaras). Boxelder is the only maple in Ohio with compound leaves. It reproduces by seeds, but it is also common for roots to produce sprouts if injured by fire or cutting.
- Root system - The root system of boxelder is shallow and spreading.
- Seedlings & Shoots - Young branches are stout, green to purple, and can be glossy or covered with a whitish waxy coat that easily rubs off.
- Stems - The bark of older stems is gray to light brown, and becomes dark brown and finely grooved with age. Trees grow up to 75 feet tall and 2 to 4 feet in diameter. Trunks often branch just above the ground resulting in a wide, open, irregular crown.
- Leaves - The compound leaves are opposite (2 leaves per node), with 3 to 5 oval-shaped leaflets (rarely 7 to 9). Leaflets are 4 to 10 inches long, and the top half is coarsely and irregularly toothed.
- Flowers - Boxelder is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are produced on different trees. Male flowers are borne singly on thread-like, drooping stalks, and occur in clusters. Many female flowers are grouped together along a shared stalk forming a dangling cluster.
- Fruits & Seeds - The tan-colored samaras are 2-inches-long, attached in V-shaped pairs, and arranged in pendent clusters.
Similar Species: Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is easy to confuse with boxelder seedlings because both have three-parted leaves; however, the trifoliate leaves are opposite (2 leaves per node) in boxelder and alternate (1 leaf per node) in poison ivy.
Biology: Flowering occurs in April and early May either before or with the appearance of leaves. Flowers are primarily wind pollinated. Leaves turn yellow before falling off in the fall. Fruit matures in September or October and often remains hanging in clusters on the branches through winter.
Toxicity: None known. However, pollen from boxelder occasionally causes airborne contact dermatitis in humans.
Facts and Folklore:
- Boxelder has been called 'poison-ivy tree' because its 3-parted leaves resemble those of poison ivy.
- It is likely that the common name, 'boxelder', refers to the use of the softwood in box making.