Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Goodbye Blackjack

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Bee Balm bursting in bloom

The sparse rains in mid-June invigorated the grass and brought out the mowers. My neighbor flew around on his machine at a breakneck rate, no doubt reaching speeds of at least 30 mph! He is darned sure to finish the job as quickly as possible. Then the last week of June arrived, with enough moisture to more than make up for any deficit. Even after four inches fell at my house, the puddles vanished with a day. The mowers impatiently waited to return to the yards. The edge of the field along the new road had filled in with sunflowers and Coreopsis. Considering extensive erosion has been occurring at many places after the native vegetation had been cleared, these stands of yellow flowers formed a thick corridor along a section of the road. It was a natural restoration in progress.

Ahh, but some people here apparently haven’t heard about the plight of the Monarch and other pollinators. Pollinator numbers are dropping all over the world. Their food and places to live are disappearing. You’d think with billions of people, many would be extremely aware and do what they could to help remedy the situation, since pollinators figure so prominently in our food production. One third of all our food comes from pollinators doing their job.

A friend in Cushing is very disturbed he has seen no pollinators in his yard or garden. People around Shawnee report less activity. It’s happening. The Monarch? The stunning butterfly is experiencing a perilous existence both in our country and in Mexico. Teams of well-intentioned people plant trees, leave natural corridors, provide essential plants and water to help the threatened species.

The message hasn’t permeated into the heads of some Oklahomans yet. I wish I didn’t have to say this. A tractor just cut down every single flower in the pasture by the new road. Somehow managed to do it between rains. The time of the year these plants are the most vital to insects and other wildlife. Not even a narrow strip along the road was left. So thoughtless. The person might as well wear a T-shirt that says “Kill all Monarchs.”

Before the next storm

My 100-year-old blackjack oak has given up the ghost. At one time its thick green shiny canopy spread wide in all directions since the oak had the area to itself. Leafless small dark woody branches hung below in typical blackjack oak style. The tree had a stark silhouette in the setting sun. In its shade the meadow voles tunneled through the sandy soil. The roadrunner made regular passes digging its zygodactyl feet (two toes in front and two toes behind as an “X”) in the cool earth under the branches. Cardinals, sparrows, blue jays and even a few indigo buntings flitted from branches and nests. Robins hunted for worms in turf at the edges of the shadows. Then came Tornado Bob in 2013. The roaring whirlwind ripped apart the stately tree. Ever since, the oak has hung on, each year leafing out where it could and attempting to produce more branches. This year leaves appeared, but the tree couldn’t sustain them. The green leaves turned brown. Only the leafy wild grape vines give the appearance the tree is still with us. Lichens grow on the deep brown trunk. Possibly another victim of the severe February cold.

The tree will be left as a natural statue, a snag for woodpeckers searching for insects’ cavity-dwelling birds hunting for potential nest sites, wood-degrading fungi and other organisms whose purpose is to reduce deceased plants to base organic compounds over time. Going to miss that tree.

Indigo buntings are everywhere this year. Early spring the long-distance migrants leave Central America and fly at night until they reach the US where they spend summer. Cross Timbers is one place the buntings stay. The lengthy patch of woodlands and prairies extend from Kansas through central Oklahoma into north central Texas. Cross Timbers is a buffer zone between the forests of the east and the High Plains.

The dying Blackjack Oak

For centuries the main Cross Timbers trees, the blackjack oaks (Quercus marilandica) and their buddies, the post oaks (Quercus stellata), established themselves on upland sandstone areas. Redcedars grew in ravines and moist deep soils. Lucky for them, where the trees lived and their growth habits made harvest difficult. No tractors could penetrate the wild rough areas. The old growth forests team with 200- to 400-year-old oaks and even older redcedars. A living oak with multiple trunks means it was either cut or burned and has stump sprouted from roots as much as 1,000 years old. Some Pottawatomie County residents still remember large groves of mature oaks, but long ago were eliminated for development or pastureland. Sound familiar?

The infamous Washington Irving (1783-1859) of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” fame traveled through Cross Timbers in 1832 with a military expedition. The November first 1832 entry in his journal: “a broken, hilly country covered with scrub oaks, with interlacing limbs as hard as iron and intersected by deep ravines of red clay, down which the horses fairly slide and scramble up the other side fairly as cats.” Irving described the oaks in late fall as dried and brown in a miserable, dreary country with lower branches black and hard that would tear flesh from man and horse. The reason why he lovingly referred to Cross Timbers as “The Cast Iron Forest.”

On a happy note, the bee balms are in bloom. The stand of native minty Monarda fistulosa averages four feet in height and has been super appreciative of the rains. The flowers are mini-explosions of purple tubular flowers fanning out from green bases on tall stems. The bumble and other large-bodied bees have had a field day in the plot when it isn’t raining. Bee Balm, also called Wild Bergamot, has strong antiseptic properties. The leaves, which contain intense fragrant oils, make a refreshing mint tea.

“For to the bee a flower is a fountain of life,

And to the flower, a bee is a messenger of love.” Kahlil Gibran

Becky Emerson Carlberg

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.