13 July 2021
In Pittsburgh we hardly think about box elder (Acer negundo). It’s a native tree that grows by the river. No one plants it. It’s not a “bad” tree. So I was puzzled by this 1950’s story from my mother.
I never hear of box elder that I don’t think of your grandfather. He never had a bad word to say about anyone. He was a man of integrity and the absolute worst thing I ever heard him say was [this] about a member of the town council: “He was the kind of man who would plant box elder.”— 1950’s family anecdote from my mother
My grandfather lived in a village in suburban Chicago in the heart of the Midwest where box elder is considered bad, ugly, weedy and invasive. Wikipedia provides this insight on how it got a bad reputation:
“After World War II, box elder’s rapid growth made it a popular landscaping tree in suburban housing developments despite its poor form, vulnerability to storm damage, and tendency to attract large numbers of box elder bugs. … It can quickly colonize both cultivated and uncultivated areas. … It grows around houses and in hedges, as well as on disturbed ground and vacant lots.”
In Wisconsin box elder is so disdained that the Urban Ecology Center wrote a blog in defense of it: Native Tree Spotlight: In Defense of Box Elder.
Box elder isn’t invasive in Pittsburgh so I had to go look for it on its home turf at Duck Hollow. There I found that as a shade tree it can look pretty good. This one is two box elder trunks intertwined.
However some of them die back leaving ugly bare branches at the top.
And if you cut box elder or chop it down it grows suckers from every crevice.
Midwesterners agree that box elder is bad. Why don’t Pittsburghers have this aversion? I think it’s because we are on the eastern edge of box elder’s range, we never planted it as a street tree, and it isn’t particularly invasive here.
What is invasive here? Japanese knotweed! Originally planted as an ornamental, we don’t think it’s pretty anymore.
If my grandfather had lived in Pittsburgh perhaps he would have said “He was the kind of man who would plant Japanese knotweed.”
Aha. Now I get it.
p.s. Later this summer box elder bugs will appear though not in huge numbers at Duck Hollow.
p.p.s. Did you know there’s a Box Elder County in Utah named for the abundant trees?
(photo at top by Tom DeGomez, University of Arizona, Bugwood.org, remaining photos by Kate St. John and John English)