June Bouquet, Part 2: 'Flamingo' box-elder & Friends

Here's how to grow this month's colorful beauty, 'Flamingo' box-elder:

Latin Name

Acer negundo 'Flamingo'

Common Name

'Flamingo' box-elder


Sapindaceae, the Soapberry family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous ornamental tree.


Zones 3 to 9.


Upright when young, widening into a vase-shaped multi-trunked tree with maturity.  Responds so well to pruning, though, that more compact mature habits are possible.

Rate of Growth


Size in ten years

If unpruned, twenty five feet tall and wide, possibly more.


Graceful and lively.

Grown for

the dramatically variegated leaves, which are fairly unusual for hardy plants in having a notable amount of pink in them when young.  Mature leaves are mid-green with white sectors around the perimeter. 

Flowering season

Early Spring, before the leaves emerge:  April or even March in Rhode Island.  Yellowish-green and modestly showy.


Full sun with just about any reasonable soil.  The straight species of Box-elder is a notably tough and intrepid colonizer of ground, and can become a self-seeding pest.

How to handle it

This is an exciting tree even if all you do is plant it and let it grow as big and wide as it ever wants to.  But because Box-elders are so responsive to dramatic pruning in early Spring—sending out new stems that can get six, eight, even ten feet long in a given season—it's even more interesting to do some amount of pruning of any Box-elder.  (There are plenty of other maples—Japanese maples par excellence—that need little if any pruning, and have a better mature form when unpruned too.)

Box-elders can be pruned back in early Spring so that they have a single trunk, with all the branches arising from the top of it.  This activity is called pollarding, and the result of pollarding is a "standard."  (Any plant manipulated by some sort of training—pruning, pinching, grafting, whatever—to take the shape of a ball on a stick is called a "standard.")   A box-elder standard is much more compact than a full-grown plant, and has the somewhat unusual ball-and-stick structure, which in itself is interesting, especially in Winter, and especially in contrast to the majority of your garden's trees and shrubs, which would, almost certainly, not be so dramatically pruned.  But because this pruning also inspires the tree to grow new foliage all season long instead of just in the Spring and early Summer, a standard Box-elder is a more colorful garden citizen than a free-range one.

You could also prune your Box-elder down to low stumps each Spring, in which case it would behave like a large bush instead of a tree.  Such pruning is called "coppicing", and the resultant bush is a "coppice" instead of, as above, a "standard." 

Box-elders have an impressive range of hardiness, thriving both in Manitoba, Canada, and Montecito, California.  So almost any garden North of the Gulf Coast could be a candidate for one of them.


In the wild, the straight species can be plagued by all kinds of ills, from tent caterpillars to mites, aphids, scale, borers, and various bacterial and fungal afflictions.  The list is arm's-length but, in my experience over many years, the ornamental cultivars don't get any of them in a garden environment.  (Another possibility is that, because I pollard or coppice every Acer negundo I plant, this unusual interruption of their free-range growth habits somehow disrupts the seasonal rhythm of afflications by bugs and diseases.)

I also notice no self-seeding, but that, too, could be as result of the early-Spring pollarding, in that branches are cut off before they're old enough to flower.


The straight species of Box-elder isn't interesting enough to warrant inclusion in a garden, but there are a couple of forms besides 'Flamingo' with remarkable talents, and I've come to think of all of them as garden essentials.  'Kelly's Gold' has chrome-yellow foliage that holds its color impressively through the Summer.  'Violacea' has only plain-green foliage, but the new stems are deep violet with a pronounced waxy coating, and after cold weather arrives (and the leaves are dropped, leaving the stems fully exposed), the stems are discretely striking in the Winter garden.


On-line and at "destination" retail nurseries.


Cuttings, as well as grafting.

Native habitat

Central and Eastern United States.



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