Gardens of the Cross Timbers: From the Arctic to Alabama

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Hibiscus and sunflowers

The 9th Webinar in the Oklahoma State University Shackleford Series was given by Dr. Todd Lasseigne, executive director of Bellingrath Gardens in Alabama. Todd, a native of Thibodaux, Louisiana, has visited over 450 gardens around the world. After spending 9.5 years successfully implementing a master plan of improvement for the 70-acre Tulsa Botanic Garden, he joined Bellingrath Sept. 1, 2020, happy to return to his original horticultural zone! The 65-acre public garden on the Fowl River near Mobile offered new challenges, and it was closer to family.

The original title “From Zones 7a to 9b: Horticultural Pursuits from OK to Alabama” was edited to “From Zones 4b to 9b: Horticultural Pursuits from the Arctic to Alabama.” Who could forget last February?

The presentation started at the Tulsa Botanic Garden (TBG) and ended in Alabama. Todd wondered what did happen last February months after he left Tulsa. If record breaking weather hits, many will not again plant those flowers, shrubs and trees that perished. His philosophy: plant them again. You may well get to enjoy the plants many more years before another record breaker. Experiment with growing different plants.

Consider the end users in public gardens. Are they parents, children, students?

Celebrate the seasons. The TBG “Garden of Lights” exhibit at Christmas has become a popular attraction. Tulip displays in spring bloom in various patterns of color. The Botanic Garden just received 25,000 pounds of pumpkins for this year’s pumpkin maze. A prairie garden has been established in the Children’s Discovery Garden.

Liatris floral spikes

Among the plants Todd has tried is Oklahoma Phlox (Phlox oklahomensis), one of our many native phlox. Very limited range of 10 counties in southern Kansas, central Oklahoma and northeast Texas. Found in Tallgrass and mixed grass prairies. A band of what he thought were Cleomes (spider flower) filled the roadside near the TBG. The relatives were a species of clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra). Grows well in dry barren soils. Spoiler alert: the thick stand in full bloom was killed the week after he had discovered them.

If you like reblooming iris, try the Remontant Bearded Iris ‘Champagne Elegance.’ They flower spring and fall. Several cultivars. Along Tulsa railroad tracks and dry waste areas grow Leavenworth’s Eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii), distinguished by their intensely purple clusters of thistle-like bracts. Lasseigne couldn’t resist showing us a picture of 6-foot-tall blooming Yuccas (Yucca rostrata) growing by a Tulsa Taco Bueno. The Mexican species are cold hardy. Leaves turn yellow if soil is alkaline.

Incorporate natural heritage. While in the Ouachita Mountains, Todd discovered many oaks hybrids were difficult to identify. White oaks sported natural skeletonized leaves, and there were red oaks and Shumard oaks or black oaks and Southern Red oak blends. The area has been poorly botanized but presents lots of potential. On the Oklahoma side of Sugarloaf Mountain in LeFlore County, Todd discovered an intensely colored beautyberry. Now sold as ‘Sugarloaf hot pink’ (Callicarpa americana), the berries are a much deeper pink than ‘Welch’s Pink’ Beautyberry. One nursery seller advertises the crushed leaves of the Sugarloaf Beautyberry are a fantastic mosquito repellent.

One native palm actually grows in southeast Oklahoma. The small Sabal minor, found in McCurtain County, is a cold hardy palm that can survive -5 F for brief periods. ‘Bush’s poppy mallow’ (Callirhoe bushii), similar to purple poppy mallow, is considered endangered in Oklahoma. The mallow only grows in about 50 locations in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Some favorites every gardener should grow: European Snowball Viburnum (reaches 8 feet in height and tolerates colder winters). Tree Peony ‘Cherry Festival’ (one lives in Perkins) is a slow grower but produces large flowers the size of your head. Rose of Sharon ‘Purple Pillar’ is a vigorous plant. ‘Lemony Lace’ elderberry (Sambucus nigra) has attractive deeply dissected leaves.

Indiangrass at sunrise

Have fun with plants. Consider upright types, like Lindsey’s Skyward Bald Cypress, 20 feet tall x 6 feet wide or ‘Taylor’ the columnar redcedar. Try weeping plants, like a weeping Nootka Cypress.

Mix in tropicals for seasonal change and textures. Plant lilies, daylilies and irises. Liatris (gayfeather), coneflowers and Evening Primrose can grow into fields. Redbuds (official state tree of Oklahoma) live in North America, Europe and China. The redbud “Kay’s Early Hope” (Cercis chinensis) was named to honor North Carolina women’s coach Kay Yow who died of breast cancer in 2009. The tree blooms at the start of March Madness.

Now to Alabama. In 1917, Walter and Bessy Bellingrath purchased property along the Fowl River for Walter to use as a fishing camp. Walter was president of one of the first Coca Cola bottling plants in the southeastern U.S. Bessy loved horticulture, gardens and had a vision. With an architect they began developing the gardens in 1927 which opened to the public in 1932. Evergreen live oaks and shade gardens dominated. Hurricane Sally made an impact in September of 2020, knocking down many old trees.

Bellingrath is in zone 9b. Last February, the temperature dropped to 22 degrees F. Doubly bad since they hadn’t even had a freeze the previous two years. Nevertheless, there are plenty of tropicals, lush greenery, container gardens, the classic rose garden, Mirror Lake, lengthy shade border and 400-foot-long annual display border changed six times a year. The annual “Magic Christmas in Lights” festival, begun in 1995, was viewed by 96,000 visitors last year.

Frequent repotting is necessary during their 9-month growing season. Tulips must be pre-chilled. Cascading chrysanthemums take ten months to reach maturity and bloom late October to Thanksgiving. Tended by teams of gardeners, this is the largest cascading chrysanthemum display in the U.S.

Todd has dealt with decrepit or compromised trees, 10-foot-tall chlorotic gardenias, overgrown Chinese privets (Ligustrums) and sad American hollies. The hollies were hat rack pruned, usually a last resort. Todd discovered the hollies were rejuvenated. Most holly species respond well to this type of severe pruning.

Hat’s off to you Todd Lasseigne! Good talk.

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.