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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Monarchs are airborne flowers

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Sunset over the wetlands

We drove between cotton fields on the way to see Monarchs at Hackberry Flat last Friday and Saturday.  Located in Tillman County in the southwestern part of Oklahoma, the wetland complex is 11 miles south southeast of Frederick, the county seat.  Wheat, cattle and cotton country. The annual Cotton Fest and Chili Cookoff is scheduled to be held November 7th 2020.  Maybe. Check before going.

In early spring, because of too much rain, Tillman County planters had to push to get their cotton planted by the insurance date cut-off.  Above and below average temps and rainfall evened out by September into October.  Only five days were above 100 degrees. Pigweed (Amaranth) cropped up and some bacterial blight hit fields due to the higher humidity and temperatures in July. Pigweed competes with cotton and can stunt growth and production.  Rather than tolerate the opportunistic native or attempt sustainable solutions, pesticides have been routinely used to kill the edible plant.  It is now developing resistance.  In 2019, the volatile weed-killer 2,4-D (active component in Agent Orange), was approved for use as a defoliator on soybeans and cotton in the US.  Endocrine disrupter and cancer agent. Nasty stuff.  Buy organic.

Cotton (Gossypium sp.), is a relative of okra, cocoa, hollyhocks and other members in the hibiscus family.  For centuries the plant has been grown in Mexico and South America but was first planted in Oklahoma by the Choctaw Nation in 1825.  Today there are fifty Gossypium species and hundreds of cultivars.  The word Gossypium comes from Arabic goz, meaning soft substance. Soft, supple cotton.  Fits.

Cotton grows as a shrubby annual 3 to 6 feet tall in temperate zones.  It does not require a lot of water.  About 35% acreage in the US use irrigation; the rest depend on nature’s rain.  In the tropics cotton may turn into a tree-shaped perennial twenty feet tall.  Cotton plants have not only nectar producing glands in flowers which excite and draw pollinators, but extrafloral nectaries on leaf stems or near leaf veins. These seem to attract predatory insects to defend the plant from other insects or plant eaters (herbivores).  A mutualistic relationship.  Eat or be eaten.  

Loaves of Cotton

Cotton flowers develop into dry round 5-lobed (celled) capsules or bolls.  When these bolls crack open, the puffy white cotton fibers stuffed inside each cell explode out.  Embedded within each cell are 7 to 10 seeds. Ginning removes the seeds.  Cotton fiber quality depends on length.  The highest quality fiber staple length is 1 to 2.5 inches used in fine fabrics and clothing.  This cotton is most difficult to grow.  Standard staple cotton fiber is 0.5 to 1.3 inches while short-staple used in carpets and blankets runs 0.5 to 1 inch in length.

The dryland (rain dependent) cotton harvest is starting near Hackberry Flat. Acres and acres of cotton surround the wetlands.  Cotton harvest is projected to be quite good at 2 to 4 bales per acre.  Each bale weighs about 500 pounds.  If you see huge plastic wrapped bundles of cotton that look like gigantic bread loaves, over 20,000 pounds of cotton are packed inside.

Our destination, Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area, is composed of 3,700 acres of restored wetland basin surrounded by over 3,000 acres of mixed prairie, grasses and cropland.  The lands are owned and managed by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife and Conservation (ODWC).  Early settlers looked upon the fertile dark soil as primo farm land despite the fact the area flooded, experienced heavy fog and the birds were so thick the sky often “looked cloudy”.  

By 1900, farmers were determined to drain the area and dug a ditch four miles long, twenty feet deep and forty feet wide using shovels, mule power and steam shovel.  They couldn’t stop the flooding.  Crops panned out after a few decades.  ODWC purchased the land and began reconstruction in 1995 to create a new wildlife refuge, feeding grounds and recreation area.  

Up at the Crack of Dawn in Foggy Frederick

Dikes, canals, and water control equipment were installed in sections of wetlands.  

The seventeen-mile pipeline to Tom Steed Reservoir assures water in severe drought.  Forty miles of levees and ditches form thirty-five wetland units (from 4 to 725 acres).  Natural cycles of wet and dry are mimicked to attract waterfowl and other wildlife that feed on millet, sedges, native grasses, mesquite, Osage orange, black locust, sand plum, Maximilian and common sunflowers, asters, soapberry and, naturally, hackberry.  

Friday night we watched this last generation of Monarchs cluster together to rest on native trees.  The next morning, they refueled on sunflower nectar before heading south to Mexico.  This generation has stored fat and will not reproduce but use that energy to get home.  They also live 8-9 months instead of the 2-6 weeks of the spring and summer generations.  

Next February in Mexico, as spring approaches, this awesome generation we observed in Oklahoma mysteriously switches gears and goes into reproductive mode.  They fight their way north to southern TX to begin laying eggs on milkweeds, the only food their baby caterpillars can eat.  Monarchs go where milkweeds grow. They use their sensory glands on their heads and feet.

The caterpillars will munch milkweed until fully grown.  During the pupa stage they make the chrysalis. Pupa is from Latin for doll and the chrysalis does look like a baby wrapped in a blanket.  The most amazing thing happens after the Monarch caterpillar spins a silk cord to hang from.  It solidifies into a J shape and soon sheds its skin to reveal a teal green chrysalis.  Within this protective cover the Monarch completes its metamorphosis in 8-12 days before the chrysalis splits open, the butterfly climbs out, pumps fluid into the wing veins which expand and dry before the Monarch “throws off the chains of earth and flies.” (Encyclopedia of Life Podcast)

Release of the last tagged 2020 Monarch.

The patchwork of cities, agricultural fields and roads have broken up the north-south Monarch habitat corridor.  Large track, fence to fence farming and herbicides have wiped out milkweeds necessary for survival of Monarch larvae.

Want to help the Monarch?  Plant early season flowers to greet those same butterflies that just left Oklahoma this October.  Indian Blanket, Sweet Alyssum, chives, Salvias, milkweeds, bee balms, coneflowers, dandelions, even dewberries. Seriously, don’t mow those early spring flowers; only cut where necessary or in paths with native flowers between.

Post your intentions on your refrigerator right now!

Next spring, when and where possible, put out marigolds, zinnias, butterfly annual or perennial wildflower seed mixes. Make your preparations now and you might see some old friends’ next spring.

“Just living is not enough; one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”  Hans Christian Andersen

Morning at Hackberry Flat

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 Becscience@att.net.