Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Be a kind human

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Resurrection of the Sunflowers

What a summer so far.  Since early spring the patio has had to be swept every day.  Initially white Bradford pear flower petals covered the concrete like lovely snow.  The pear tree leaves then developed orange leaf spots courtesy of Asian pear rust.  This was a lose-lose situation.  The fungi require two hosts, junipers and pears.  The redcedars earlier fended off cedar apple rust caused by fungi that forms those impressive round orange alien life forms with gooey brown tentacles.  The redcedar exploded in brilliant technicolor balls as spring humidity and temperatures rose.  

The disgusting Asian pear rust showed up in Oklahoma County in 2013.  The rust manifests itself as lumpy thick orange cankers on juniper branches.  The leaves of the pear, alternate host, become covered in red-orange lesions and fall off as if it were autumn.  The weeks with little rain helped disabled the rust, but the trees were in their groove and kept dropping leaves because of periodic dry spells.  

Pears, members of the rose family, are not native to Oklahoma but live here as ornamentals and fruit trees.  The native rose cousins include chokecherry, plums and hawthorns. All can serve as hosts for different plant rusts.  In a way, it is amazing that seed-bearing conifers somehow became involved with flowering pear or apple trees under the direction of complex fungal cells.

Fungi, more closely related to animals than plants, appeared on earth about one billion years ago.  Bacteria, the first living organisms on earth, preceded fungi by about 2.5 billion years. These microscopic survivors are adaptive and powerful. Our bodies are composed of 43% human cells.  The rest are microscopic organisms.  Who is running the show?

I swear we have some early Cedar waxwing arrivals from their northern summer digs.  The non-fruiting pear, as the tag said, produced non-fruits that the birds have been plucking off and splitting apart to get to the non-seeds.  Tiny pear halves daily litter the patio.

Meanwhile the junipers endure wave after wave of bagworms.  I pick them off, and twice the number appear the next day hanging off the branches.  Sensing this approach is futile, my next plan of attack is wait until the dormant coolness of winter.   During the cold months-- before the stationary females become fertilized by the little randy males flying about, eggs hatch, and larvae leave home to make their own leafy houses-- I hope to pull off every little dangling cone I see.  Of course, some of the junipers may already have died, but a plan is a plan.   

Bumble bee on Liatris

The Liatris (Blazing star) in the pollinator garden was host to tip borers.  The flower spike ends were killed. Undaunted, the plants branched out and instead of single spikes, each plant has several shorter floral spikes bearing purple flowers.  

The tomatoes and perennial periwinkles have been reduced to basic frameworks by spider mites.  The hardy minty Hyssop in the pollinator garden has a multitude of stems but few leaves. Soil drainage problems?  Soil similar to that found around the rock fountain in the Japanese Peace Garden (JPG for short)?

Three chrysanthemum plants were placed on the ground next to the bubbling water feature in the Heart of the JPG.  Trowel in hand, I figured it would take no time to plant the pretty flowers and add spots of color.  What was I thinking?

The Pickaxe, tool of necessity

The soft, fluffy mulch around much of the rock fountain was moved to the side.  The exposed soil layer below was exposed.  My pathetic tool could only make shallow dents in the impenetrable rocklike earth.  A studier implement was needed.  The flowers were taken back home.

Next afternoon the chrysanthemums returned, with a pick axe and bucket of wood chip mulch.  After consulting with Linda Smith, very experienced Master Gardener, it was determined that perhaps filler sand was used around the basin when the fountain was installed.  Combined with clay, the mixture formed a concrete-like material.  Somewhat therapeutic to wield the pick axe and watch the rock split into smaller chunks.  Mulch and chunks were pounded into some sort of soil.  The chrysanthemums were wedged into place, watered, and the downy-like mulch pushed around the plants.  While letting things settle, the border around the bubbling rock was weeded.  Another bucket of water and the fountain landscape looked cheerier.  

Newly planted chrysanthemums at the JPG

The Zen Garden in the JPG has always been a wonderful source for volunteer plants.  Usually long tap-rooted plants with eyes on immortality pop up, but often sunflowers find hospitable places to germinate and grow.  These are descendants of “The Great Sunflower Project.”  Dr. Gretchen LeBuhn, San Francisco State University (SFSU), started the project in 2008.  She uses information from 100,000 citizen scientists to identify where pollinators are declining and discover ways to improve their habitats.  In 2010-2011, Lemon Queen sunflowers grew downtown as a Boys and Girls Club project.  The sunflower patch was then shifted to the Murrah Plot by the JPG for several years.  The students counted bees when the sunflowers were in bloom and the data sent to SFSU.  We discovered Monarchs were also attracted to the sunflowers.  Well before the JPG, the Brick Factory and the Naval Air Base, this was a wooded area with patches of wildflowers and native grasses.  Generations of Monarchs and bees have visited or lived here for hundreds of years.

Honey bee and native bee populations are in trouble and those sunflowers are on borrowed time.  Too untidy. I gently pulled up eight of the strongest looking sunflowers to take home with me.  The new Earth Box was prepared with moist soil and the young Helianthus annuus were planted at the worst possible time of the year to transplant anything.  First day they all collapsed down into green piles.  Second day three began trying to stand straight.  Leaves were dying everywhere.  By the fourth day, all were standing, but most the leaves appeared to have contracted gangrene and were quite dark brown, drooping to the soil in defeat.  To keep up morale, those leaves were quietly removed.  My little sunflower forest now looks like picked clean brussels sprouts stems with token leaves sprouting from the top of each.

The early Tuesday morning rains were a welcome surprise.  The mother turkey and her brood gathered under one short oak to wait out the shower.  All necks and heads were stretched upward as if looking at something in the tree.  Turkeys do this sometimes, staring up to the sky for 30 seconds or so.  It’s an inherited trait called tetanic torticoller spasm.  

Stand still in a group of people and look up.  You’ll find humans exhibit this same trait.

Evening Sunset

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