Interior West: Oklahoma Tough

Fort Collins, Colorado, USDA Zone 5

Rain comes to these parts in tempermental foot-deep gushes, then may not return for months. The alkaline soil is packed with water-wicking gypsum. Icy, below-freezing winters are usually without snow cover. April may see temperatures go over 90 °F, then dip into the teens. Then the brutally hot summer begins, with an endless parade of windy days well over 95 °F. Muggy nights bring little respite. Oh, and then there are the tornadoes. Welcome to western Oklahoma.

Husband and wife Steve and Sherry Bieberich were born and raised here. “I wonder what it must be like to live where things grow,” muses Sherry. Steve interjects quickly, “This part of the world needs us.” Indeed, Steve and Sherry’s 24-year-old business, Sunshine Nursery, in Clinton, has helped countless southern Great Plains gardeners find tough, beautiful plants that will thrive in their challenging conditions. People drive for hours, many crossing state lines from Texas and Kansas. There’s no better place to find trees, shrubs, and perennials adapted to the region.

That’s because Steve has an explorer’s curious mind. The Great Plains and nearby mountain ranges are his main stomping grounds for observing plants and collecting seed, but lately he’s expanded his horizons to China and Tibet. A recent trip brought him home 35 pounds lighter (thanks to dysentery), but carrying well over that weight in seed to try. The Chinese connection was made years ago, through renowned former Oklahoma State University horticulture professor Carl Whitcomb, who told Steve that the southern Great Plains and northern China had a kinship in soil, topography, and climate. And only about 20 percent of northern China’s woody plants are known. Steve was intrigued.

Sherry grew up helping in her father’s nursery just a quarter mile down the road. She runs the business end of Sunshine Nursery, handles the retail store, and specializes in perennials. Many of her unique selections came from fellow plantspeople, especially the late Logan Calhoun of Texas, who gave her the lovely, tough Salvia greggii ‘Pink Preference’ (USDA Zone 6-9). She trials them and propagates the best performers.

Steve grows the woodies—40,000 tree liners annually for wholesale, and about 10,000 of varying container sizes and field grown for both retail and wholesale. The beautiful Caddo maple, Acer saccharum subsp. saccharum, inspired the nursery’s birth. This remnant southwestern population of the sugar maple grows in one little canyon nearby; it is adapted to heat, drought, and alkaline soils. Steve was the first to produce it in large numbers, and used it as trading bait with many arboreta around the country. This allowed him to begin his own arboretum on six acres next to the nursery. Special selections of native woody plants and new species from Asia remain Steve’s enduring passions. He has a special soft spot for oaks and elms, and he focuses on disease- and insect-resistant species, selections, and hybrids of the latter.

The tornado-proof concrete bunker Sherry and Steve built, the home where they raised their five kids, now presides over thousands of beautiful Oklahoma-grown plants. “Be happier with what you have” is Sherry’s advice to all gardeners. 

IF YOU GO

Sunshine Nursery is located just north and west of Clinton. Oklahoma, which is about 90 miles west of Oklahoma City.

WORTH GROWING: A smattering of Sunshine Nursery’s plants that are thriving in our Zone 5 Colorado garden:

  • Ceanothus ovatus: native deciduous shrub with shiny foliage and lots of creamy flowersi

  • Juglans microcarpa ‘Prairie Fern’: Steve’s feathery-leaved selection of the small native river walnut

  • Lonicera albiflora: native deciduous shrub with eucalyptus-like, rounded blue foliage

  • Populus deltoides ‘Tower’: Steve’s Nebraska sandhills, upright, narrow selection—much better than Lombardy poplar

  • Pinus bungeana: lacebark pine, Asian in origin, with lovely mottled bark and airy needles

  • Solidago sp. ‘Wichita Mountains’: strikingly architectural noninvasive native perennial goldenrod

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