I’m a plant geek- continuously amazed by the plant world. Like when I first found out that cactus grow native to Michigan and Illinois. A few years ago I was walking past a house in Michigan that had mounds of prickly pear growing and flowering in the yard. Double-take! I expressed my amazement to the woman living there, “I had no idea cactus can live outside here!” She called hers “Michigan Prickly Pear” and broke off a few pads for me to grow. And grow they did (above pic). It would be a much larger patch, actually, were it not for a hungry critter two years ago.
More than likely this is Opuntia humifusa, or Eastern Prickly Pear, which grows native in the Midwest. Opuntia monocantha and Opuntia fragilis can apparently also found in Illinois and Michigan. Mine appears lanky in the pic because it started to grow in low-light conditions while over-wintering. I have since moved it onto the rooftop where I expect it will thrive and hopefully bloom. I can confidently say that this species can handle its fair share of neglect and abuse! It looks quite disheveled (ok, it looks dead) after a harsh winter but perks right up in the spring.
Hiking in northern Michigan a couple years ago I came across another “desert” surprise- lizards! Maybe not as much a surprise in Illinois, but for an Upper Peninsula of Michigan native, seeing a lizard seemed about as likely as seeing a zebra. Yet there it was on Marquette’s Sugarloaf Mountain, what I’ve since learned to most likely be a Five-lined Skink, a native of Michigan. Illinois has a native legless lizard, which I’ve yet to see, called the Slender Glass Lizard.
From desert to the tropics…
If you’ve spent time on Chicago’s beaches you may have seen live palm trees. I’m not going to surprise anybody by saying those are not native to the Great Lakes region. But, surprisingly, some folks are successful in growing them outdoors in Chicago (with special care). And orchids, which are normally thought of as tropical plants, are native and even abundant in the region. Even some non-native tropical orchids can thrive in Illinois home gardens. Especially if you happen to live in a micro-climate, where your growing area may be a zone ahead of your neighbors, you can try your hand at outdoor tropicals.
I try to be conscious about bringing non-native and hybridized species into a habitat, but I think it can be safely said that these particular tropicals won’t be overpopulating anytime soon. Even the cold-hardy palms require a lot of attention to over-wintering or they will die. That said, keep them at home and preferably grow them in containers. Here are some websites with tips for picking species and growing conditions of hardy outdoor tropical plants: