Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Oh no!

Becky Emerson Carlberg
A Bradford Pear tree at Shawnee Mall.
A late Monarch caterpillar.

The autumn winds were spectacular. Halloween weekend was full of fun and spirits. Then the first cold week of November arrived. Tomorrow daylight saving time ends. Winter’s coming.

Plants have been pulled out from their summer digs and put into their winter quarters. If only it were that simple. The front greenhouse first had to be cleared before another plant entered the premises. The Plumeria never left, and the southwest corner served as the Donkey Ear nursery. The hedge trimmer, weed eater, bikes, bike helmet, three small carpets, and a stack of plastic buckets had to go elsewhere. The floor was swept. Ready.

Outdoors, the lilies were languishing in a pot half-filled with soil. Even though the lilies were in the process of withdrawing from the world into their bulbs, they received fresh potting soil. The neighboring pots with blackberry plants and the lilies were then heavily mulched. The rootbound Star Jasmine had to be cut out of its pot and placed into a slightly larger one. Quite difficult jamming soil down between the root ball and the sides of the pot. Several thick jasmine branches were growing horizontally an inch above the soil surface. When done, it was tucked into the southeast corner on the shelf in the greenhouse. The two Poinsettias hosted volunteer sunflowers this year. The sunflowers had gone to seed so they were removed. The remnants were then propped up with the other over-the-hill sunflowers. The Poinsettia soils were replenished. Into the greenhouse.

The mountain marigold was trimmed. Into the greenhouse. The spent bromeliad flowers were cut out and two plants went into the greenhouse. The third one earned a place of honor in the sunporch with the out-of-control Pothos ivy (there’s a reason why they call it Devil’s ivy), three spider plants and a Boston fern. The Aloe complex in the heavy cast iron kettle on the porch was also scooted into the sunporch. The metal pot is well over 50 years old. It had belonged to our neighbors down the hill. My mother somehow wound up with it. The weighty cauldron with three legs was turned into a flower pot dedicated to periwinkles. At my house it became a succulent pot.

Three pineapples had babies. One green baby snapped off, one lucky pineapple continues to grow, and a tiny but ripe pineapple was harvested. The miniature yellow fruit was luscious, pungent and sweet. The pineapples were moved to the north of the Plumeria. The lemon grass was edged in behind. The Kalanchoes sit on shelves. The asparagus fern was nestled next to the mountain marigold. The pot of periwinkles came into the greenhouse at the last minute with the red sages.

Young ginger plants, not exactly wind-proof, did not appreciate the strong winds that whipped around the front porch. The plants, some with bent stems, now bask in the calmness of the Lemonery. The Aloes and the wildly spreading Boston Fern are also now amongst the lemon trees.

The pathetic ten-foot-tall Hass avocado (or alligator pear) tree leaves on top are shredded from being blown by the wind and snagged by redbud branches. In its natural state, the avocado tree could reach 35 feet. The subtropical ‘Persea americana’ plant had sprouted from a seed held in water by three toothpicks.

Avocado flowers are perfect, with both female and male parts. The flower opens for two days but female parts are responsive one time and male parts are active at a different time, a reproductive strategy called synchronous dichogamy. A dandy way to prevent self-pollination. Avocadoes come in two types, A and B.

The thick-skinned creamy Hass avocado is type A. The female stigma is receptive to male pollen for 2 to 4 hours in the morning and then the flower closes. The second day, the flower reopens in the afternoon, but only the male pollen is shed. Note: Type A’s are frost sensitive at 32 degrees F.

In type B’s, the female stigma is ready for pollen in the afternoon. The male flowers open the next morning, but the female flowers have closed. Type B’s, such as Fuerte, are called ‘greenskins’. The skin is thin and flesh less dense. The Fuerte can withstand temps to 28 degrees. The 20-foot-tall Bacon variety has the best cold tolerance (24 to 26 degrees F). Both A and B types should be planted for good fruit production. Makes bees, the pollinators of the avocado, very happy.

Avocado’s long history extends back thousands of years, good thing since the perennial avocado tree can live 400 years. The word avocado comes from the Aztec ‘ahuacatl’ for testicle. Now you know.

Commercial growers use small sturdy ‘wild’ avocado trees native to south central Mexico. The seedlings are grown to three feet in height and the avocado plant of choice is then grafted onto the wild stock. Out of hundreds of varieties of avocadoes, seventeen are most commonly grown.

My avocado tree shares its box with tropical milkweed plants. Preparing to move the box with the sky-high avocado into the greenhouse, I looked up to discover two Monarch caterpillars munching away on the milkweed. Oh no. The next day, one had attempted to attach to the side of the greenhouse, slipped to the ground and was crawling up the side of a flower pot. I left for just a minute, but on my return couldn’t find the caterpillar anywhere. Someplace that little guy is making a chrysalis.

Monarchs do not overwinter here. Too cold. The chrysalises do not offer any protection from cold. The second caterpillar is still eating away on the milkweed. I hope it’s loving its last few meals.

Then there’s the Bradford pear in full bloom last week between Chili’s and AT&T at Shawnee Mall. The robustness of the tree is jeopardized since it has channeled much energy into producing blooms as if it were spring instead of shutting down for winter.

Such a confusing year. Let’s have some normal, whatever that means in Oklahoma.

A ragged avocado tree.

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