Gardens of the Cross Timbers: If you plant it, they will come

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Flat of Green Milkweeds with ProPlugger tool

On Memorial Day, three in the afternoon as light rain fell, my son raised his trumpet to his lips and played ‘Taps’ while standing in his backyard. He was joined by other individuals, young music students, school band members, professional musicians, Boy Scouts, the National Guard, military bands and others socially distancing themselves across the US. They played the 24 note bugle melody from balconies, front yards, back yards, parking lots and driveways. ‘Taps Across America’ was an idea shared by both Steve Hartman and Jari Villanueva to honor, reflect and remember fallen soldiers.

Steve Hartman, 24 years News Correspondent with CBS, was motivated by a story he did in 2012 about Don Britton, a retired Aerospace worker. Although Don had polio as a kid, he played trumpet and later in a band. He started to play Taps in 2009 from his balcony. Each day he checked the time of sunset, practiced in the afternoon and as the sun dropped below the horizon, he stepped outside to play Taps.

Historian and retired United States Air Force Master Sergeant Jari Villanueva, spent 23 years with the USAF Band at Arlington National Cemetery. Villanueva, with Marine Corp veteran Mark Paradis founded Taps for Veterans, an organization which provides buglers and trumpeters for funerals and ceremonies of military families. They feel a veteran’s final honors should be recognized with a live rendition of Taps, not an audio version.

The last time I had heard my son perform Taps was as a duet with his older brother at their grandad’s funeral. The two together slowly played the somber tune. As the ending note carried through the hills, the Color Guard folded the flag and gave it to my mother. It was such an emotional but final tribute to my father as recognition for his years of service in the army.

Two large cardboard boxes were sitting on my porch Wednesday May 20th. Emblazoned with Monarch Watch, I knew exactly what was inside: 32 Butterfly Milkweeds (Asclepias tuberosa), 50 Whorled Milkweeds (Asclepias verticillata) and 64 Green Antelopehorn Milkweeds (Asclepias viridis). The babies had been growing for many months at the Applied Ecological Services in Baldwin City, Kansas. Five nurseries had devoted space for growing milkweeds for the Monarch Watch milkweed restoration program. The plants, worth nearly $500, were free courtesy of a grant. Only the shipping and handling were paid by the Oklahoma Master Naturalists.

Each tray of greenery was unpacked and netting removed. All plants got a good drink and were placed in semi-shade. The whorled milkweeds shifted during shipment and additional soil was added to top off several pots with exposed roots. All these milkweeds prefer full sun as seen in several of the pastures this year brimming with green antelope horns. This has been a banner year due to the mild, damp winter.

The Oklahoma Master Naturalists and Deep Fork Audubon Society are involved in the milkweed project. Two native gardens alongside the Japanese Peace Garden—the Deep Fork Audubon Society Prairie Garden and Oklahoma Master Naturalist Prairie Wildflower Arc—were selected to be sites for the milkweed plants. The entire Japanese Garden in Shawnee as well as the airport lay below the Monarch migration route. We decided to go with the “Field of Dreams” philosophy: If you build it they will come.

The ‘milk’ in milkweeds comes from the white milky latex sap produced when the plant is injured. Birds quickly discover the bitter milkweed juice Monarch caterpillars consumed during their developmental stage carried over into the adult butterfly stage. Some sensitive human skins may be irritated, but avoid the eye. Your cornea will be quite unhappy due to a botanical chemical burn and react with pain and swelling. Vision can be severely affected and recovery may take days. Milkweeds are beautiful plants, but those cardiac glycosides can be formidable. Be careful when handling the plants.

The Butterfly Milkweed flourishes in semi-dry places with sand, loam or even rocky soils found along roadsides and prairies. This milkweed is fickle. I have had limited success in cultivating the striking orange flowered milkweed with lance shaped leaves. Perhaps the Peace Garden area will bring out the best in these plants known for producing large amounts of nectar. This is the only milkweed which doesn’t produce milky white sap. Instead it makes a translucent watery juice.

The narrow leaves of the Whorled Milkweed resemble flaccid rosemary leaves. Some call it the horsetail milkweed. The plant fades into obscurity within the native grasses and wildflowers when not in bloom. The loose open white flower clusters tinged in green are also appreciated by hummingbirds.

The very common Green Antelope Horn Milkweed is concentrated in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The flower heads are now quite noticeable because cattle and horses avoid these milkweeds. These milkweeds grow well with little competition. They are shorter than the previous two types, the leaves are often broader, and the seed pods resemble antelope horns if one uses a little imagination.

Green milkweed is also called spider milkweed. Harmless little flower spiders, white crab spiders, like to live on these plants. Females lay eggs on the milkweeds in spring. During autumn the white crab spiders choose goldenrod flowers since these flowers attract numerous insects. Spider food for egg production. The white crab spider can change to yellow in 10-25 days to match a sunflower or revert back to white in 6 days if setting up house in a daisy. So cool.

On May 21st four trays of milkweeds, two bags of mulch, one container of slow-release Osmocote fertilizer, one spade and one ProPlugger 5-in-1 planting tool were taken to the Japanese Peace Garden. With the help of two volunteers and Horticulture/4-H Educator Carla Smith, 114 assorted milkweeds were plunked into the ground in the two native plant gardens. The plug tool removed just the right-sized core which was emptied to the side. The bottom of each hole was sprinkled with Osmocote, milkweed inserted, core soil tamped down around the plant and mulch added as a final touch. The mulch actually helped show where the milkweeds were. One flat remained to be planted later. Good rains fell the following days.

May 27th the last tray of 32 green milkweeds was planted in the grounds of St. Gregory’s Abbey. The rains will soon end. How will the Kansas milkweeds respond to an Oklahoma summer? Predictions are super hot and dry by August.

“In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.” Robert Green Ingersoll

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