Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Box Elder?

By David Spector Gazette Contributing Writer

I was once afraid of box elder. It was a misplaced fear, as I’ll explain, but it provides a useful example of why we need good environmental education.

Box elder is neither a box (a group of evergreen shrubs and trees) nor an elder (the source of elderberries). The less frequently used name “ash-leaved maple” is more informative in correctly identifying this tree as a maple. “Ash-leaved” refers to its compound leaves (several leaflets on a stalk, which is attached to the twig), like those on ash trees, rather than the simple leaves (one leaf per stalk) found on such trees as sugar maple. Hence this name is reasonably descriptive.

Box elder is a fast-growing tree that adapts well to a variety of conditions. As a maple, it can be tapped for sap, and its winged fruits (“samaras”)—typical of maples—are food for a diverse group of wild animals. The earliest leaves on a box elder seedling are recognizable as simple, lobed maple leaves. The leaves of the adult, though, are “pinnately compound,” with about five leaflets arranged along the central rib like the vanes of a feather (from the Latin pinna, meaning feather). It is the only local maple with compound leaves. All in all, it’s a perfectly benign species.

Why, then, have I and others occasionally suffered from fear of box elder? As a child, I learned to recognize and avoid the three leaflets of poison ivy. “Leaflets three, let it be” is the jingle often used to teach children about this plant with its rash-inducing oils. When box elder is at a shrubby height, and sometimes even when it reaches full tree height, many of its leaves consist of three irregular leaflets (instead of the more typical five) with an uncanny resemblance to poison ivy leaves.

Environmental education programs in schools and at nature centers like the Hitchcock Center can counteract fear of box elder. Teaching good identification methods can help eliminate unfounded apprehension, directed perhaps at an innocuous maple that resembles a poisonous species or at a non- stinging moth or fly that mimics a bee or wasp. There are real dangers in the wild, and accurate identification can both lead to reasonable caution and prevent unnecessary anxiety.

Once one knows that a plant is box elder and not poison ivy, one can ask many questions about it. A few that come to my mind when I contemplate the trees leaves include these: Is box elder a mimic? That is, does the similarity of its leaves to poison ivy leaves provide some protection against deer and other browsing animals? What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of compound and simple leaves, and how do those apply to box elder and other maples? The easy folding of a compound leaf in wind has been shown in other tree species to provide some protection against blow-down. Is this true for box elder?

Simple observations of a local tree, which can be framed in an age-appropriate way, can lead an environmental educator in many directions. Noting a box elder on a nature walk, for example, can lead to discussions about safety (distinguishing poison ivy from superficially similar plants), wild foods (sap), ecological relationships (looking at browsing damage on different plants to test the mimicry idea, or putting different leaf types in front of a fan to examine wind resistance), and much more.

The lesson to be taken from my earlier fear of box elder is that good environmental education goes far beyond ditties like “leaflets three, let it be” to warn against poison ivy. Such education builds on curiosity to expand knowledge of nature in many directions, to promote inquiry and critical thinking, and to provide insight into the processes of science. In the spirit of Alexander Pope’s aphorism that “a little learning is a dangerous thing,”environmental education also serves to combat fear through greater exploration and closer examination of nature.

David Spector is a former board president of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and teaches biology at Central Connecticut State University.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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