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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Things come and go

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Plumeria, Pineapple and Ginger Nursery

The greenhouse was the final staging area of the Monarch barn quilt.  Male monarch butterflies have an enlarged dot on each hindwing; scent glands to attract females.  This monarch with no scent glands but thicker veins is a female I named Mona.  Mona the Monarch.  Propped on top of sawhorses lined with wax-lined freezer paper, Mona had three coats of varnish painted over her for protection.  She was turned face down and two more coats of varnish covered the back.  Mona was composed of seven layers of paint and varnish!  The good part.

The bad part.  A tiny greenish bird was sitting on the greenhouse floor.  It was noon.  The brightly colored male ruby-throated hummingbird should be out zipping around the feeders and flowers.  His wings were spread out, head erect and green back feathers a little fluffed, but not a mark on him. The only give-away he was gone were the few ants scavenging around his eyes.  What had happened?

Hummingbirds age ten times faster than we do.  Being the world’s smallest bird, the hummer lacks downy feathers and loses tremendous amounts of body heat.  Every day it must consume two to six times its body weight in nectar and insects.  If this bird were human, it needs 155,000 calories a day!  The hummer conserves energy by being very territorial and restricted to one area.  

The hummingbird can’t sleep or it would die.  At night, the miniscule bird enters into controlled hypothermia where its heart rate and breathing slow drastically.  Otherwise the bird is in constant motion.  During flight the wings beat up to 62 times per second.  Hummingbirds do suffer from a high rate of heart attacks, ruptures and strokes. Their predators are spiders, snakes, lizards, bats, blue jays and crows. One more thought crossed my mind.  Varnish fumes.  The varnish on Mona the Monarch’s Barn Quilt dried in high temperatures in the greenhouse. Birds are very sensitive to volatile oils and solvent fumes.  Had the small bird been overcome by the toxic varnish vapors?

I carried the little guy to the new sunflower bed.  He was buried at one end and will no doubt keep giving his all until he is all gone.  This hummingbird was here last year.  He would land at one particular nectary, drink, then fly up to his favorite branch to sit before taking off to who knows where. Every morning, evening and in-between like clockwork.  That night as I did dishes, my gaze kept wandering to the hummingbird feeder expecting to see him.  The cups and plates got an extra rinse that night.  The next day Mona was moved into the house to finish drying.

Mona the Monarch on way to Butterfly Garden

The Monarch barn quilt will soon join other outdoor wall art decorations in the area.  The Barn Quilt Trail frenzy has taken over the midwestern section of the US, from Iowa to Michigan.  Gibson County Indiana claims over 225 hand-painted blocks on their ‘off the beaten’ path.  Not to be out done, Fannin County Texas started their trail in 2012 and now have over 100 squares and counting.  We may not yet have a barn quilt trail, but Shawnee’s colorful murals and displays could develop into the Shawnee Outdoor Art Trail!  

Mona Monarch may rue the day her varnish possibly extinguished a hummingbird.  The definition for rue is bitterly regret.  RUE can mean right upper extremity in physical therapy.  Rue is also an herb.  Common Rue (Ruta graveolens) is a musty scented evergreen perennial in the citrus family.  Shakespeare called it the herb of grace.  In the Catholic Church, rue branches were dipped in Holy water and sprinkled over parishioners as a blessing.  The three rue plants at my house are finally getting some attention.  Rue is especially attractive to the Eastern Black Swallowtail and Giant Swallowtail butterflies.  Black swallowtail caterpillars are currently munching away on several leafy stems.

Rue in sun

The plant name rue comes from Old English Hreowan “to make sorry.”  Probably to do with the defense mechanism the plant produces in the form of coumarins and furanocoumarins.  Watch the grapefruit if you take coumadin, a prescription coumarin blood thinner medicine.  Don’t want too much of a good thing.  Many citrus plants are guilty of making these protective but phototoxic chemicals.  They can cause the skin to erupt in a rash when exposed to sunlight.  Handle with care.  

The hardy rue with delicate blue-green leaves is native to the Balkan Peninsula.  It is the national herb of Lithuania.  The closest the US comes to a national herb is the National Herb Garden in Washington D.C, the largest designed herb garden in the US.  This has been a joint project of the Herb Society of America and the Arboretum since 1965.  When funds were available, the garden was constructed in 1979 and planted in 1980. Four gardens were set up:  Entrance, Knot, Rose and Theme. Example:  the Knot Garden uses elements from 16th century English gardens.  Throughout the National Garden grow lavender, rosemary and even chili peppers.  Other plants such as dwarf evergreens and boxwood hedges act as edges or borders.  Rue must be somewhere in there.

Black Swallowtail caterpillar on Rue

Rue has a lengthy association with Mediterranean peoples. The herb has long been cultivated in gardens for its culinary and medicinal properties.  It was thought to be a repellent against pestilence, plagues, poisons, fleas, snakes and cats.  Rue is mentioned in the Bible and the Talmud. Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo ate the small, deeply lobed leaves to improve their vision and creative juices.  Fresh rue leaves are edible, can slightly numb the tongue and are quite acrid.  Shakespeare knew this when he wrote in Hamlet “Rue is a bitter tasting herb.”  In playing cards, rue is the source of the suit of clubs.  The Ukrainian folksong “Chervona ruta” tells the story of yellow rue turning red when a girl is happily in love.  So romantic.  

This heirloom herb is still used in Ethiopian cooking.  Bitter herbs in the past were added to balance the sweet, salty, sour or spiciness of foods. Tastes have changed.  Rue is no longer popular, but can still be found in old Italian family recipes.

Rue has remained unhybridized since leaving the Mediterranean, so the rue you grow is a direct descendant of the original.  Rue is a great nectar and host plant for any butterfly garden.  It may get two feet tall, likes 6-7 hours of sunlight per day, and tolerates fairly dry conditions.  Overwatering can kill it.   My kind of plant.

Mom keeping watch

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