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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Plan, prepare and plant!

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Henbit and pansies

Have you heard from the trees and fences “Fee-bee”, the bee part ending in a raspy bur? The Eastern Phoebes have arrived from their wintering grounds in the more southern regions. Looking like a slate gray junco on steroids with large dark head, the Phoebe is a small sparrow-sized flycatcher that relishes insects. The perching bird with talented toes can also raise its feathers into a peak on the top of its head. Phoebes build nests in human dwellings as well as under bridges, so they are quite close to us. You may have Phoebes and not even know it until you hear its song.

The arrangement of flowers now on the lazy Susan keep going and going. The green mums, deep pink and orange roses and pink zinnias have stayed fresh and vibrant for days. These blooms arrived via truck delivery from an internet source. I wondered how long the splashes of color could hold out, but they continue to remain strong and perky, even the rose leaves. I hope my climbing rose by the front door looks this good in a few weeks. It has small leaves, so at least it is alive!

Not even spring yet and the early ground-level flowers are exploding with dainty color. Where I went to vote, the secluded little area by the door was full of Johnny Jump-ups (Viola bicolor) and Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule).

The little delicate blue wild pansy in the violet family has tiny petals all of 1/2” in size. Often the plants proliferate in such numbers the ground takes on a bluish cast. Considered “old-fashioned” favorites, these natives can actually be container grown, good along borders and the flowers are long-lasting. The edible petals have a faint wintergreen flavor. The small pansy prefers partial shade and the bloom life can be extended by dead-heading.

The ubiquitous Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) most people know, but may not realize this is not native, having been brought over from Europe (also grows in Asia and North Africa). The member of the mint family is fondly called giraffe head or Henbit deadnettle. It does have the characteristic square stem and minty smell and is indeed edible. Very similar to its cousin, Purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum). Look at the leaves. Henbit has leaves which are heart-shaped with scalloped edges that grow along the stem. Purple dead nettle has triangular-shaped leaves in clumps. Both are nutritious, high in iron, antioxidants and fiber.

Try the “Spicy Henbit” recipe. The cook boiled 4 cups of shoots (spent some time harvesting the little things) for 10 minutes. In a separate pan he melted 3 T butter, added 1 tsp curry powder, 2 whole cloves and ¼ tsp cinnamon which cooked for a minute. 2 T of flour was added and the sauce cooked another minute. One half cup of water from the boiled henbit was stirred in. The rest of the henbit was drained and combined with the sauce, ¾ cup sour cream was spooned in and everything simmered on low for 15 minutes. Nothing says spring like the first harvest of henbit or sweet crunch dandelion flowers!

Some dandelions have already set fluffy seed heads. All these spring emergents are the earliest nectar sources for bees and pollinators. Hard to predict the future. January received 5.30 inches of rain but February had 1.77 inches. The neutral cycle our weather has been stuck in is due to revert back to a pattern similar to that in 2010-2012 with sun activity on the rise after its 24th Solar Cycle. Translation: The La Nina is predicted to become stronger this summer which often coincides with drought and more days above 100 degrees. It continues to build next spring and summer, bringing severe weather outbreaks and powerful tornadoes. Significant drought events and sustained drought from Texas to the southeast may happen this summer and fall through next year’s seasons.

Do consider the possibility of a weather cycle change. I’d be prudent in my gardening and planting efforts this year. Nature goes in long-term cycles, so this prediction may be scarily accurate. Keep and protect your trees. The Coronavirus has been tracked to deforestation. The Chinese bat habitats are being destroyed forcing the bats into close associations with human populations. Unforeseen consequences in tampering with nature could rise up even here where we live. Fewer trees translate into hotter temperatures, higher electric bills, less water, more wind and dryness. The last two are excellent conditions for the flight of the redcedar pollen. Very high right now!

Each amber colored pollen grain with its inner star can travel hundreds of miles. The first onslaught came in December through February with Mountain cedar pollen (Juniperus ashei) from central Texas. Why not remove the offending trees? Because….the 30 foot tall evergreens cover 24 million acres of Edward’s Plateau. They are drought-tolerant conifers that provide erosion control, wildlife and stock shelter, and the wood for fences. Think of the aroma inside a cedar hope chest. Some people still have hope chests.

And now it is the time for our redcedars (Juniperus virginiana) to release their pollen. Feel comfort in the fact our pollen levels peak from March into April. Yay. Not as potent as mountain cedar pollen, but if sensitized to the mountain cedar, your body will continue to react when hit with redcedar pollen. Wear a face mask. The mask is ineffective against the micro-miniscule coronavirus but works magic against larger pollen grains. Be the envy of your neighborhood and the one who can still breath and see through watery-less eyes.

Let’s revisit the new road construction north of my house. The sides of the road to and from nowhere are being graded. Easy since all the trees have been removed. The soil now has few roots or structures to hold it in place. The remaining topsoil will be lost to erosion. Topsoil: top soil layer with the highest amount of organic matter, nutrients and microorganisms needed to keep plants alive.

Know how long it takes to make an inch of topsoil? Anywhere from 100 to 500 years.

The muddy water that will flow into the roadside ditches will affect the amphibian and insect life. They thrive in clear waters. Eh, they are probably gone since the many life forms that had overwintered in the banks along the four mile stretch of road were either dug out, exposed or killed when the trees were ripped out. Unforeseen consequences.

I hope the county does sow wildflower seeds and native grasses. These will provide cover and nourishment for the wildlife, Monarchs and other pollinators. Native plant roots penetrate deeply into the soil. Some roots extend down 15 feet.

You too can put in wildflowers and native grasses. Now is an excellent time to plan, prepare and plant. If the weather goes extreme, the plants just might save you.

“To-day I have grown taller from walking with the trees.” Texan Karle Wilson Baker (1878-1960)

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