Welwitschia – The Desert Dwelling Fossil

By Dennis Collaton – World Adventurer

“It is out of the question the most wonderful plant ever brought to this country, and one of the ugliest.”

Such was the response of the Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in 1863 when presented with a Welwitschia mirabilis.

With such a reputation, you can imagine my wonder and awe when, spread-eagled across the sand of the harsh Namib desert – there it was.

“Stop the bus!” I yelled, and as the door of our air-conditioned carriage swung open, we were immediately blasted with dry desert heat of this famous natural wasteland. Yet despite this arid desolation, the Welwitschia flourishes, even though it may not look that way!

This primitive member of the cone-bearing gymnosperms is a remarkable denizen of the coastal desert regions of Namibia and Angola. So devoid of rain is this place, that our living fossil must rely on the scant morning fogs to provide the moisture in an otherwise forbidding moonscape.

Welwitschia mirabilis plants are unusual for their large, straplike leaves that grow continuously along the ground. During its entire life, each plant produces only two leaves, which often split into many segments as a result of the leaves being whipped by the wind. Carbon-14 datings of the largest plants have shown that some individuals are over 1500 years old!

Because plants of Welwitschia form a large and deep taproot, they present challenges to those who would grow them indoors under glass. The most common method of cultivation is to pot the plant into a long upright section of ceramic drainage pipe.

To any casual observer the Namib Naukluft National Park is a largely flat 23,000 hectare sand pit, yet it is one of the largest reserves in Southern Africa. Eland, Oryx, springbok and cheetah make their home in the Namib, as well as the strange vascular plants described here. Entry is by special permit only. Despite occasional sightings by European explorers, so totally inhospitable and forlorn was this region, that the 15th Century Portuguese traders and explorers almost completely ignored it.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the Germans annexed the region as part of an unseemly European colony snatch and stuck it out until they lost the lot after WW1. One hundred years ago, a lowly rail worker delighted the Kaiser when he stumbled on a few loose diamonds in the sand and unwittingly uncovered one of the richest diamond fields in the world.

Today, Namibia is a modern independent republic, with a delightfully anachronistic German hangover. This vast, sparse country is home to a dozen varied ethnic groups with such evocative and colourful names as the Kavango, Herero, Himba, Damara, Nama and Basters.

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