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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Sailing into 2020

Becky Emerson Carlberg

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming. This Christmas poem was first published in 1780 in the children’s book “Mirth without Mischief.” Kids tried to remember all the verses during a game played on the twelfth night. If they messed up the lyrics, a sweet or kiss had to be given. Older similar poems have been found in Northern England, France and Scotland. The Twelve Days were not put to music until the 20th century.

The value of the 364 gifts would cost $170,298 today. The twelve drumming drummers are now worth nearly $3,000, but the most expensive are the 10 lords-a-leaping at $10,000. Keep this mind next year. Of course, you may prefer the 2001 Southern Christmas version by greeting card designer David Price. It’s much more entertaining and cheaper. It begins with a Cardinal in a Magnolia Tree, 2 Delta Darlings, 3 Smokin’ BBQs, 4 Plucked Banjoes, 5 Golden Hushpuppies, 6 Cotton Plants Growing, 7 Footballs Flying, 8 Racecars Racing, 9 Chickens Frying, 10 Grits-a-Grinning, 11 Hounds a-Howling and finishes with 12 Kudzus Creeping!

Some of my friends in England believed all the decorations and tree must be down by the twelfth night or bad luck to you. Then again, if you took down your tree too early this too could be bad luck because the spirits that hid in the holly and ivy would become upset and they would tank your autumn harvest. I played it safe. On Monday, January 6th, the cards came down, the white tree with soft needles was taken outside and placed behind the storm cellar and the boxes of decorations were put back into the attic. Not to upset by sprites or fairies, I ate the last pieces of peanut butter fudge and polished off the cranberry salad and ham. Won’t tell them about the fudge and other cookies still hidden in the cool closet.

The balmy January weather has turned on us despite the clear sunsets and star-filled nights earlier this week. The full ‘Wolf’ moon rose very early Friday morning, if you saw it. Years ago, the howling of wolves during the cold, crisp nights could be the signal for wolves to gather for a hunt, mark the territory or locate other pack members. The wolf deserves our respect. Before 1850, Oklahoma had a substantial population of red wolves, the offspring of coyotes and timber wolves. In 1980 the last red wolves were caught by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but the attempt to save them from extinction failed. Timber wolves were completely eliminated in the 1930’s due to severe depletion of deer and bison. We must be better stewards of Oklahoma wildlife.

Joel Sartore founded Photo Ark, an ambitious project to record vanishing species on earth. The contributor to National Geographic, NBC and PBS was on CBS Sunday Morning showing some of the nearly 9,000 species of plants and animals he has photographed. His goal: 12,000 species in human care around the world despite the ongoing destruction of ecosystems and habitats. “When we save species, we’re actually saving ourselves.” Sartore advocates preserving or restoring vast tracts of rain forests, lands and waters. These wildlife habitats are just like human cities and towns. You can make a difference. Attract more butterflies, native bees and plants where you live by changing the way you maintain your gardens and yards. “By doing the best you can, your very diligent existence will improve the world. Imagine that.”

Or envision being pelted with rocks from the sky. The first meteor shower in January were the Quadrantids—faint little streaks of light. The parent body may be the small planet 2003 EH that is possibly a descendant of the disintegrating comet which caused the Ch’ing-Yang Event in 1490. Three ancient records reported “stones that fell like rain” causing numerous casualties. This may have been an air burst (exploding meteor) over Qingyang District in southwest China. Today, the Quadrantid asteroid takes 5.5 years to orbit the sun. Meteors seemingly originate at the end of the handle of the Big Dipper. I managed to see two short streakers early in the asteroid’s 3 week passage. Peak night was January 3rd-4th. I slept through it. Probably the best meteor show of the century.

My plants in the greenhouse have appreciated the milder weather, up until now. Orange Cosmos continue to bloom. Tropical milkweed seeds stowed away in the Hibiscus happily germinated. They now regularly bloom and set seeds which explode from the seedpods, sending fluffy dandelion-like umbrellas throughout the Hibiscus. Tiny yellow aphids have also discovered the milkweed. Much to their chagrin and mortality, I frequently wipe clean and spray the leaves, stems and flowers.

The pineapple is nearly full grown. I watch for subtle color changes to yellow and keep a nose out for pineapple odor. Pineapple pros say let the fruit fully ripen because once picked it won’t get any sweeter even though the outer skin keeps turning yellower.

On the 12th day the pine tree was carried out of the house to go behind the cellar, except it couldn’t get there. The Trifoliate orange hypodermic needle trees (Poncirus trifoliata) growing along the south side of the cellar rebelled against having a pine tree enter their midst. The hardy orange trees were such cute little spindly spikey things I neglected them for years. Well, on their own they not only expanded but got an attitude and conquered. I could no longer access two sides of the cellar. Thorny branches reached out. My oranges are the most common type with straight formidable (wicked) 1 to 2-inch thorns. The Flying Dragon Bitter Orange tree thorns bend backward, making the tree look even more contorted. Makes a cool Bonsai tree.

Northern China and the Korean Peninsula are the ancestral homes for this cold-tolerant citrus tree that can withstand snow and frost, but dislikes drought. Yes, the small fuzzy, seedy, really bitter fruits are edible. I collected several from my parent’s tree and put them in what I thought was a safe spot. A marauding rodent discovered my stash and ate them. Europeans once dried and candied the golf-ball sized orbs. One person likes a slice or two of the fruit in gin and tonic. Marmalade can be made from the zest and pulp. The flavor is a cross between lemon and grapefruit.

The tree has become naturalized and somewhat a pest from Pennsylvania to Texas. Reaching 12 to 20 feet tall, a line of Trifoliates form an imposing impenetrable fence. Bees and butterflies adore the creamy white fragrant blooms in spring. Birds nest within the protective thorny branches.

I had to prune my grove to allow passage of the Christmas tree…..and they retaliated. One stabbed my gluteus maximus with a long (had to be at least 6 inches) thorn that perforated three layers of clothing. Other stout spikes punctured my arms in the shapes of various constellations. You have to respect a tree with an interest in the stars.

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at