Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Winter isn't done with us yet!

Becky Emerson Carlberg
American holly cloaked in snow

The 134th annual Groundhog Day took place last Sunday at Gobber’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. In falling snow, the groundhog handlers showed the groundhog cane which allowed them to understand groundhogese. They unlocked Phil’s tree stump, knocked three times on the door to wake him, and pulled a blinking groundhog out into the snowy air while brushing warm grass bedding from his thick luxurious coat. Phil was placed on the top of the stump. Can only imagine what Phil was thinking! Two scrolls lay in front of him. With help, he “chose” one. The scroll declared he did not see his shadow. Prepare for an early spring.

Will and Wiley, 14-year-old grizzly bears living at the OKC zoo, have impersonated groundhogs for over a decade. This year, as usual, they dug their den, lined it with sticks, grass and leaves and had settled in for the winter. On February 2nd boxes of fruits and veggies were placed by the entrance to entice them to come out. It worked. They lumbered out of their cozy quarters looking for food and cast sharp shadows in the sunlight. If the brothers overslept and had not surfaced, their black bear cousins, Maynard and Woody, had offered to be groundhogs. The shadow knows. We here in Oklahoma have six more weeks of winter.

Saturday (Feb 1st) the Oklahoma Native Plant Society (ONPS) held their Indoor Outing for 2020 in the Tulsa Garden Center. Over 100 people showed up on this warm sunny day.

Have you heard of “Color Oklahoma?” Color Oklahoma is a project of ONPS. Native wildflower seeds are purchased and spread along highways and turnpikes. Included are Indian paintbrush and beard tongue (Penstemon) that flower in spring, milkweeds and prairie coneflowers late spring, tickseed (Coreopsis) and rosinweed for summer, gayfeather (Liatris) and aster late summer and fall. There is a grant program to help communities participate. A state license plate with the yellow-tipped red Gaillardia pulchella available for $35. The state donates $20 to Color Oklahoma for each plate.

Color Oklahoma has entered into a new partnership with Oklahoma State Parks. Demonstration gardens have been established in ten parks. Funding comes from sales of the Gaillardia license plates. Emphasis is on attracting pollinator species, which help the Monarch, and education of park visitors and volunteers about native wildflowers.

“Lucky Springs” is a natural spring to the east of Peggs, OK, included in the original Cherokee land grant. Lynn Michael, volunteer plant taxonomist, has spent much time there. The source, Spring Creek, is 34 miles long and flows from Delaware County into Ft. Gibson Lake. Typically, Ozark streams are narrow and flow in valleys bordered by steep bluffs. The watershed encompasses 17,000 acres.

Follow the dirt road lined with wild plants to Lucky Springs. The old school burned in 2006, but remnants of a longhouse and cabin still exist. An old pipe pours spring water. Pollution has crept in, with chicken houses and gravel companies in the area tapping into tributaries.

Lynn’s talk was of ephemerals and spring blooms. Ephemerals are plants that grow, bloom, set seed and die in a short specific period of time. Elusive ephemerals are early bloomers, often appearing before trees leaf out. They play an important role in ecosystems. White Trout lilies quickly come and go and it’s tricky situation to catch them in bloom. Beaked Trout lilies must have two leaves before they bloom. Dutchman’s breeches with feathery fern-like bluish-green foliage produce delicate pink flowers. The Blood root plant produces a large white daisy amidst thick scalloped leaves. The seed pods form elaiosomes, fleshy protuberances that contain fats and proteins. The food gifts for ants are carried back to the colony who eat the good stuff while planting the seeds. A strong relationship exists between plant and ant.

The shade loving American Wild Ginger has small ground level maroon blooms often under fallen leaves. Easy to miss. Flies are attracted to the flowers to help with pollination. The ginger is a substitute host plant for pipevine swallowtails. Native orchids may come up, bloom and go in 3 days. Along with the ubiquitous Ohio Spiderwort with blue blooms is found the Ozark Spiderwort in pink which grows only here.

“Redbud Valley Nature Preserve” is located in Rogers County northeast Tulsa. Connie Murray, volunteer naturalist, explained that the entire park is 200 acres, but this area has great biodiversity (variety of living organisms in a region) beginning at the genetic level which leads to numbers of species that create community diversity. The state of Oklahoma has 2659 species of vascular plants. Redbud Valley has 439 species. The 1.25 mile preserve trail includes several different ecosystems.

The valley is cut out of Bird Creek bordered by limestone bluffs. The limestone overlays eroded sandstone, leaving imposing overhanging shelves of limestone. Leftover from the inland sea of the Gulf of Mexico, intermittent waters formed pockets in the rocks where Columbines sprout and shells and Crinoid fossils remain embedded.

Walk along the east-facing slope, gentle with rich soil. This is as far west as the sugar maple naturally grows, with the exception of a remnant population stranded in Caddo County, OK! See rusty blackhaw and black hickory.

The north-facing slope is cool with deep rich soil. Post oak, Chinquapin oak, Dutchman’s breeches and Jack-in-the-pulpit grow here.

Next is the flood plain with slow evaporation, moderate coolness and very deep soil. Bur oaks and sycamores thrive in this area.

The upland Cross Timbers forest has thin soil over sandstone and supports post oak, blackjack, black hickory, persimmon and rough-leaf dogwood with Mexican plums lurking at the edges.

The prairie woodland has thin soil but over limestone and experiences high evaporation rates. Here grow chittamwood, redbuds, and the “Big Four” grasses (big and little bluestem, Indian and switch). The prairies of tall, mixed and short grasses used to extend south to north through the central US.

Redbuds pop up everywhere, thus the name. Preserve these unique environments. One person can make a difference. Each of you can be that person.

“The J. T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve”, presented by Sue and Dale Amstutz, encompasses 17,000 acres in the Cookson Hills overlooking the Illinois River. Spring-fed creeks flow through V-shaped valleys between sharp slopes as oak-hickory forests transition to savannas and prairies. Loads of wildflowers.

The final talk was about the “Gathering Place in Tulsa” with Stacie Martin (Director of Horticulture) and Chris Gabbard (certified arborist). Sixteen acres of wildflowers in the middle of Tulsa! The two focused on native plants, wildflowers, the trees saved, trees planted and what it takes to keep the gardens in great shape.

Wednesday Feb 20th is the date. Mark your calendars to attend the sweet Multi-County Master Gardener presentation given by Dr. Kim (honey bee advocate at Gardening with the Experts in January). Info, ideas and tips for setting up honey bee hives in the spring. Everyone is welcome. Starts at 10:30 am. Pottawatomie County Extension Center, 14001 Acme Road, Shawnee OK.

Will and Wiley may be onto something. The snow that fell around my house on Wednesday was wet and wild. The white blanket has a way of transforming the landscape into a winter wonderland. Reality hit as the thermometer plummeted that night, converting melted snow into ice. The red wing blackbird EIS team (eating and ice skating) got in some extra practice for the Beijing Winter Olympics coming in 2022. The early bird gets the worm. Sorry. I was thinking about the robin WWE team (winter worm eating).

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