An Introduction to the Boxelder Tree

A Maple Outcast, but a Western Treasure on Drought-Prone Land

Identifying Boxelder Tree illustration

Treehugger / Hilary Allison

Boxelder, also known as ash-leaved maple is one of the most common and adaptable urban trees in North America -- though it also may be the "messiest" from a visual perspective. Planting it next to your house is probably not a good idea.

The best thing about the tree is that it is comfortable on poor sites where more desirable trees cannot maintain adequate health for long life. It is very commonly seen in the treeless plains and western United States as a street tree. You can use the tree for quick growth but plan to interplant with more desirable trees to provide for a lasting tree canopy. Boxelder can be a treasure on adverse tree sites.

Boxelder Basics

A boxelder tree in a lush park setting surrounded by other trees.

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The scientific name of boxelder is Acer negundo (AY-ser nuh-GUHN-doe). Common names include ashleaf maple, Manitoba maple, and poison ivy tree and the tree is a member of the plant family Aceraceae. Although considered by many a "maple outcast", it is indeed in the maple family and the only native maple with more than one single blade or leaflet on a single leaf stalk.

Boxelder grows in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 8 and is native to North America. The tree is sometimes crafted into a bonsai specimen but often used as a screen/ windbreak and for land reclamation. It grows rapidly, can become very large and needs a lot of space. Boxelder is still a very common tree to see in a yard or park west of the Mississippi River.​

Boxelder Cultivars

Boxelder flamingo with pink leaves.

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There are several attractive cultivars of boxelder including "Aureo-Variegata", "Flamingo" and "Auratum". The cultivar Acer negundo "Aureo-Variegata" is noted for its leaves bordered in gold. Acer negundo "Flamingo' has variegated leaves with pink margins and is somewhat available at local nurseries. Acer negundo "Auratum" has abundant gold leaves but is a little harder to find. You must remember that even though these cultivars are ornamental, they still share the original boxelder tree’s undesirable characteristics that include unattractive female fruit and breakage that increase the chances of the tree's early removal due to quick growth.

Problems With Boxelder

Box Elder Bugs
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Boxelder is a rather unattractive tree when limbs break with a vengeance -- a landscape maintenance nightmare. The fruit droops in clusters which some describe as looking like "dirty brown socks" which adds to the overall trashy look of the tree. The boxelder bug makes things even worse.

Boxelder bug or Leptocoris trivittatus loves the boxelder tree. This half-inch red-striped insect is a true pest during winter where the adult multiplies and invades homes near where boxelder trees grow. It is one of the most common household pests in the United States. The bug emits a foul odor, stains fabric and can cause asthmatic reactions. It does no harm to the tree.

Boxelder Description

A close up of a Boxelder tree with green seeds hanging from the branches.

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A boxelder in the landscape grows to a height of 25 to 50 feet, depending on tree variety and site conditions. One of the tallest ever measured had a recorded height of 110 feet. The tree's crown spread is 25 to 45 feet and the crown is typically broad and ragged or disheveled. The tree often has multiple furrowed trunks or very squat single trunks.

Flowers are without petals, dioecious and yellowish-green and the female tassels are very conspicuous. The very maple-looking seeds, called samaras hang in long, profuse clusters and stay on the tree throughout winter. Nearly every seed is viable and will cover up a disturbed area with seedlings -- a very prolific seeder is boxelder.

Boxelder Leaf Botanics

A leaf and seeds hanging from a Boxelder tree.

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  • Leaf arrangement: opposite/subopposite
  • Leaf type: odd pinnately compound
  • Leaflet margin: lobed; serrate
  • Leaflet shape: lanceolate; ovate
  • Leaflet venation: pinnate; reticulate
  • Leaf type and persistence: deciduous
  • Leaflet blade length: 2 to 4 inches
  • Leaf color: green
  • Fall color: orange; yellow
  • Fall characteristic: showy

Pruning Boxelder

A Boxelder branch against a blue sky.

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You will have to prune this tree regularly. Boxelder branches droop as the tree grows and will require pruning if you have consistent walking and vehicular traffic under the canopy. The tree form is not particularly showy and should be grown with one single trunk to maturity. The tree is susceptible to breakage and can occur either at the crotch due to poor collar formation, or where the wood itself is weak and tends to break.

Superior Western Boxelders

Boxelder trees turning orange in the fall.

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There are also good qualities of boxelders in western North America. It seems that the tree takes on positive characteristics in the west that is not seen in trees in the eastern half of North America. California interior boxelder takes on yellow and red colors in autumn that rival eastern maple. Its drought tolerance makes the tree a welcome plant in that dry country landscape and very easy on limited water resources.