By: Susan Sprout
Box Elder (or Ash-leafed Maple)
While birdwatching at the Robert Porter Allen Natural Area and looking up for a change, I was happy to discover this deciduous, native tree growing by the trail in a low, moist area near the wetland. Surprise!
It isn’t a Boxwood, though it has whitish wood. Neither is it an Elderberry, though it sports elder-like pinnately compound leaves resembling one. Ash-leafed Maple is probably the better name for this tree because it is a species of maple and has opposite branching like them. Its leaves, unlike the the well-known, single, palm-shaped maple leaves, are made up of multiple leaflets ranging from three to nine opposite each other on its rachis or leaf stem. Flowers, long gone by April or May, are replaced on the female tree by double samaras or seeds, which give its identity away!
Box Elders range from Canada to central Florida. When you find this tree, look around for grosbeaks and finches who may be feeding on the samaras, which stay on the tree until early fall. Native Americans used the sap to make maple syrup, although it wasn’t as sweet as that from Sugar maples.