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Welwitschia mirabilis - A Botanical Wonder

Avatar of inke inke - 29. September 2017 - Discover Namibia

A wonderful plant: Welwitschia mirabilis (photo taken in Angola). Photo: Jonathan Basson

Home to the ancient Namib Desert, Namibia is known for the unusual and the mysterious. Myriad desert-adapted creatures and plants have evolved over the aeons showing remarkable ingenuity to survive in an arid environment.

Although seemingly desolate, on closer inspection the desert expanse is alive with life, from fog-basking beetles and dancing spiders to the larger animals like black-backed jackal, springbok and oryx. Desert wisdom extends from the minute to the enormous and includes both flora and fauna. The cold Benguela current travelling from the Antarctic meets the onshore winds from the tropics, resulting in mist banks that hover over the coastal areas, providing condensation vital to Namib life.

Shifting sand dunes and gravel plains harbour some of the most unusual and resilient plants, like the “stone plants” or lithops, hoodia known for its appetite-suppressing properties, the prickly !Nara plants seen on desert hummocks and the long-leaved welwitschia. 

Austrian naturalist and botanist, Friedrich Welwitsch was awe-struck when on 3 September 1859 whilst in southern Angola he came across a plant unlike any he had previously seen. So overcome by his find, he is said to have fallen to his knees and stared. He noted: “ ... I am convinced that I saw the most beautiful and magnificent botanical wonder that tropical southern Africa can present.” (Artist and explorer, Thomas Baines, also found a specimen in the Swakop riverbed in 1861.)

The plant indeed created bewilderment in scientific realms as to where it fitted in the plant kingdom. This remarkable plant is believed to be related to prehistoric flora only known to us through fossil records and is commonly referred to a “living fossil”. Its ancestors are thought to have lived as far back as the Jurassic period when gymnosperms were abundant, surviving and adapting as the environment became more arid. Scientists eventually gave the plant its own taxonomic category in the Division Gnetophyta as the only Genus of the Family Welwitschiaceae. The species was named Welwitschia mirabilis to honour the Austrian botanist, with the inclusion of the Latin word “mirabilis” meaning wonderful or marvellous. It is also commonly known as !kharos or khurub in Nama, tweeblaarkanniedood in Afrikaans, onyanga in Herero and nyanka in Damara.

This extraordinary plant can live to a thousand (or more) years, yet only ever produces two long leathery and broad leaves in its lifetime that grow from its woody base and may be up to three metres in length. Often appearing as multiple leaves, they are frayed and shredded into strips over the years in the extreme elements. Survival and growth of the welwitschia is a precarious endeavour as it depends on perfect conditions for germination with only one seed in a thousand reaching maturity. For that seed to germinate, 25 millimetres of rain is required, never a certainty in the Namib Desert. The coastal areas can have almost zero rainfall and less than 100 millimetres may fall in the hinterland during the first months of the year. It was previously thought that the plants absorb moisture from the fog through the miniscule pores on their leaves and through shallow lateral roots. However recent research has shown that their long tap roots search for water deep underground.

The sexes of the plant can be differentiated by their orange-red cones, the female producing the larger cones and male cones being more oblong in shape. Pollinators include a yellow and black insect, Odontopus sexpunctatus, often seen on the plants. Flies, wasps and bees may also play a role. Welwitschia mirabilis is a protected species, part of the intriguing Kaokoveld flora and a Namib endemic, growing in isolated communities along the coastal strip extending from Mossamedes/Namib in southern Angola to the Kuiseb River in Namibia and up to 100 kilometres inland.

Welwitschia still has the ability to amaze botanists and onlookers alike, adding to the list of marvellous specimens the country can claim as its own, and is one of the 200 endemic or near-endemic plant species found in Namibia. Yet, it is like no other, it is simply one of a kind.

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