This is one of my favorite trees. When I say that, people stare, laugh, or even gasp. They question my sanity, my professionalism, and my very eyesight. Let me explain. In my earliest memories of playing outside at grandma’s farm, there were two trees I loved. One tree was a Norway Spruce because you could climb it easily – like rungs on a ladder to the sky (which now I see as about 35 feet tall – it just seemed bigger back then.) The other tree was a boxelder, but I knew it as the tree-fort tree. Many a fond memory is shared by me and my cousins. My love for the outdoors was certainly influenced by this tolerant tree.
Few trees lend themselves to tree fort construction as well as the boxelder. It’s a low-branched tree that pops up in just about every hedgerow and woodland edge from Maine to Montana. It also stretches down the east coast into Florida and west to Texas. It has a patchy distribution in the western mountain valleys to California. They even exist in the high mountains of southern Mexico and Guatemala. This maple is split into male and female plants, which is unusual for maples. Plus, it doesn’t seem to mind if you hammer nails into it.
People don’t like this plant because it seeds prolifically – resulting in trees growing behind garages and cracks in the alley. It can be weak-wooded – making it undesirable for near structures. Boxelder bugs commonly swarm homes in summer, dropping this tree further down the list.
Despite its lowly status, several features of this plant could potentially lend themselves well to the difficult landscape. The asymmetrical growth pattern and craggy bark create a rugged look – the tree grows rapidly and looks like an old specimen at a young age. Vigorous new growth can have a bluish-lavender bloom (like a frosty-looking grape) on some trees. Female plants have seeds that are often pinky-orange in summer. It grows anywhere except underwater and in completely shaded places.
I think this tree can have a place in restoration projects. It grows quickly even in desolate areas, so it can be useful for developing canopy coverage and adding organic matter to the soil, which helps prevent some invasive species from moving in. It is also fairly short and intolerant of heavy shade, so in the long term, it should disappear from the forest and migrate to sunnier locales.
No matter what people say, I stand firm. I like Boxelder trees.