Where the Wild Cacti Grow

This past weekend I went on a ranger led hike at one of my local Tennessee State Parks. And as I usually do when in the presence of someone who has studied extensively more about the natural world than I have, I learned several new things that I haven’t managed to pick up yet in my years on earth. But one little tidbit that the ranger almost threw out casually has sent me into a minor existential crisis and questioning everything that I thought I knew about the world. Or at least my little corner of it. Apparently, cactus can grow wild right here in my home state of Tennessee. I’ve seen people cultivate it growing in their yards, but growing wild? I have been a Tennessean for thirty something years and before this weekend would have argued with you if you tried to tell me that we have cactus growing wild here, but I have now seen it with my own eyes.

Behold wild TN cactus!


I was full of questions when the ranger pointed the cactus out to the group. “It can survive our winters?” I asked incredulously.

“Oh, yes,” she replied.

Then the ranger pointed out another cactus. I could only conclude it must true there are honestly cacti in Tennessee and began to question everything I thought I knew about this strange land.

Another wild TN cactus- the prickly pear cactus or Opunta

So what I learned from the ranger on the hike is this: There are very specific ecological areas in Tennessee that provide the conditions that these cacti need to survive. This cactus is specifically a prickly pear cactus and it is the only cactus native to Tennessee. The ecosystem where it can thrive in middle Tennessee is known as a cedar glade. In a cedar glade, the limestone is exposed or comes so close to the surface of the ground that it leaves little topsoil and creates a dry, desert-like area. Because the soil isn’t able to support larger trees, these hot, dry areas are not suitable for most woodland animals, but they do provide a unique environment for many plants and wildflowers that would otherwise be choked out by taller plants with deeper root systems in Tennessee’s woodlands. In fact, Tennessee is home to many rare plants that grow only in cedar glade conditions.

If I had been paying attention to this trailhead board, I would have already known about the cacti, but it was a nice on-trail surprise.

Now in the way that life sometimes unfolds in strange coincidental ways, cacti had already made an appearance in my weekend. The major undertaking of my weekend has been to sort through old pictures and to begin the process of scanning them. When I moved in with my husband I had thrown hundreds of pictures into a tote with no rhyme or reason, so there was a lot of sorting to do, but I had been enjoying revisiting old pictures of past trips and adventures. One observation about myself that I had to laugh about is that I take a lot of pictures of plants, trees, and flowers. I still do this, but thanks to camera phones and digital cameras, I usually don’t print many pictures out anymore. So imagine my amusement when I came across pictures of wild cacti growing in four separate locations around the world from past adventures. First, I had several pictures of cacti growing in Texas from a trip back in 2005 including one of me posing with a cactus. Secondly, I came across a picture of wild cacti in Honduras that looks like a picture me or one of my friends took from the back of a truck going along the road and it would have been taken somewhere between 2004-2008 as I made five trips to Honduras over the years. The third location was Mexico in 2009 where I had a couple of pictures of a cactus growing in a courtyard, including one of me and my friends again posing beside the cactus. Finally, I had a picture I had taken of some cacti in Haiti back in 2013. So clearly I have a pattern, and it’s one I never realized I had. I scanned the pictures of the cacti first so I could insert the evidence of this before unrealized pattern below.

Me posing with a cactus in Texas in 2005
Roadside Honduran cacti
Cacti in Mexico in 2009
Cacti in Haiti in 2013

I imagine one of the things that drew me to take pictures of cacti in places I have visited around the world is that it is something that would seem so different than the local plant life of my own home. But apparently that is not as true as I had thought. So here is to enjoying the creation that the Lord has made, continuing to learn new things about the world, and remembering that as wonderful as it is to travel and learn about other places in the world, home can still surprise you every now and again.

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