Over 1,200 species of plants live and thrive within the vast expanse of the Big Bend region . Knowledge of this fact was shocking to me because when I originally thought of the desert , what came to my mind was dust , lack of water and the two varieties of cacti that I was able to recognize from television and books that I must have read as a child : the saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert and the prickly pear cactus . Both of these are easily distinguishable because of their iconic shapes . After moving to the vast Chihuahuan Desert , I became aware of the breathtaking array of plant life of all shapes , sizes and colors . Most peculiar — and borderline magical — to me is the purple prickly pear cactus . And not just any purple prickly pear cactus , but Opuntia azurea , or Optunia a for short .
Before moving out to Far West Texas , the thought of cacti of different colors seemed bizarre . I didn ’ t know they existed . But then one day while driving down Highway 118 , I saw something purple out of the corner of my eye . And then I saw another and another . I couldn ' t help but to see them everywhere , including near our home . I couldn ’ t help but to become curious about this jewel-colored cacti . What I found out about this cactus made me love it even more . It ’ s actually become an important symbol for me as my family and I continue our homesteading journey in the Chihuahuan Desert .
This is what I ’ ve learned : other purple prickly pear cacti exist , but according to Big Bend National Park , Opuntia azurea is native to this area and only found in this region . Its long spines and yellow flowers distinguish it from other purple cacti around the country . Its beauty , uniqueness , and life out here in the desert parallels the story of life out here in the desert for many of us , but also perhaps life out here in the world for all of us .
Optunia a is a beautiful cactus . It ’ s a spot of purple in a breathtakingly beautiful , yet rugged landscape . It ’ s always purple-ish and visually appealing , but do you know when Optunia a is the most beautiful ? It ’ s especially beautiful when the weather is cold and dry . Under conditions that would kill most other plants , this cactus is radiant . Whereas you might miss it ordinarily on a drive down highway 118 , in the cold of winter situated amidst the muted palette of the desert , you can easily see the depth of its color . This plant is different .
Now remember , all 1,200 species of plants in the Big Bend region are going through the same adverse conditions ¬– the cold and the drought – but this one is growing through the same thing , but in a different way . It gets more and more purple as the weather gets colder and harsher . Optunia a doesn ’ t change into something different because of the circumstances it ’ s going through . Rather , its beauty is pulled out from something deep within itself . Under challenging conditions , this plant becomes a more beautiful version of itself .
That seems to be the story of so many out here . That ’ s the story of this New York-Texan . I grew up in a solid twoparent household in the Bronx . Hard work and perseverance were character assets that were encouraged in our household on a daily basis . One of my father ’ s favorite sayings was , “ No one owes you a living , Stephanie .” And my mother would often say , “ This too shall pass .” I carry those phrases with me and reflect on them often . Especially on the difficult days out here , when I want to give up and run back to the conveniences of the Big City . I lean into my parents words of wisdom and search the hills on our property for Opuntia azurea as a reminder that I can do hard things and the importance of perseverance .
Life out in south county is shockingly beautiful , incredibly liberating , and is often fraught with challenges . These challenges strike everyone out here ; the extreme heat in the summer , the cold in the winter , the lack of “ conveniences ” and high paying city jobs make this lifestyle inaccessible to many . There ’ s a reason that the population is so small . But there are a few who dare try . Our family happens to be among the few . So far , these challenges haven ' t killed me , but the growing pains have been very uncomfortable at times .
It ’ s in the challenging moments that I think about Opuntia azurea , in the cold and the drought , and how the cactus gets bolder and brighter as the conditions get tougher and harsher . When I ’ m tired of hauling water or keeping my eye on our solar or I start missing my family , I think about this plant . I also think about a scripture in the Bible : James 1:2-4 , “ Consider it a sheer gift , friends , when tests and challenges come at you from all sides . You know that under pressure , your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors . So don ’ t try to get out of anything prematurely . Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed , not deficient in any way .”
My friends and family have noticed the difference in me . They ’ ve noticed my patience , humility , adaptability , and kindness . I ’ ve always displayed these characteristics to some degree , but by navigating the ups and downs of living life out here in the desert , these characteristics have only become stronger . This has been a major blessing of our life out here . In a society that applauds immaturity , anyone who leans into the trials and tribulations of life with some measure of grace can only be seen as different .
On this rocky road of life , in which some stretches are more turbulent than others , I encourage you to search your landscape for something beautiful , reflect on words of wisdom and find your plant reminder . And if you can ’ t find your own plant reminder , you can borrow mine . Be like Optunia azurea . Let the trial bring out the best of you and distinguish you as something a little different . Be a spot of beauty in an otherwise harsh and rugged environment . The world is guaranteed to be a better place because of your efforts . �
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