Welwitschia mirabilis

Family: Welwitschiaceae (welwitschia family)
Common names:
welwitschia, tumboa, n’tumbo (Angolan), tweeblaarkanniedood (Afr.), !kharos (Nama/Damara), nyanka (Damara), khurub (Nama), onyanga (Herero)

Weird, peculiar, wonderful, strange, bizarre, fascinating, and of course, unique, are the kind of words that are used to describe the welwitschia. It is one of the few things on Earth that can truly claim to be one of a kind. There really is nothing like it.

Description
An adult welwitschia consists of two leaves, a stem base and roots. That is all! Its two permanent leaves are unique in the plant kingdom. They are the original leaves from when the plant was a seedling, and they just continue to grow and are never shed. They are leathery, broad, strap-shaped and they lie on the ground becoming torn to ribbons and tattered with age. The stem is low, woody, hollowed-out, obconical in shape and sturdy. It grows to about 500 mm in height. The largest recorded specimen is in the Messum Mountains and is 1.8 m high, and another on the Welwitschia Flats near the Swakop River is 1.2 m tall and 8.7 m wide. Carbon dating tells us that on average, welwitschias are 500-600 years old, although some of the larger specimens are thought to be 2000 years old. Their estimated lifespan is 400 to 1500 years. Growth occurs annually during the summer months.

The sexes are separate, i.e. male plants and female plants. The male cones are salmon-coloured, small, oblong cone-like structures, and the female cones are blue-green, larger and more tapering. At Kirstenbosch, they flower from midsummer to autumn. The male flower has a sterile, modified pistil-like structure, which exudes nectar (50% sugar content) from a modified stigma-like structure. The female cone has exposed stigmas and also produces a nectar droplet.

Weird, peculiar, wonderful, strange, bizarre, fascinating, and of course, unique, are the kind of words that are used to describe the welwitschia. It is one of the few things on Earth that can truly claim to be one of a kind. There really is nothing like it.

Description
An adult welwitschia consists of two leaves, a stem base and roots. That is all! Its two permanent leaves are unique in the plant kingdom. They are the original leaves from when the plant was a seedling, and they just continue to grow and are never shed. They are leathery, broad, strap-shaped and they lie on the ground becoming torn to ribbons and tattered with age. The stem is low, woody, hollowed-out, obconical in shape and sturdy. It grows to about 500 mm in height. The largest recorded specimen is in the Messum Mountains and is 1.8 m high, and another on the Welwitschia Flats near the Swakop River is 1.2 m tall and 8.7 m wide. Carbon dating tells us that on average, welwitschias are 500-600 years old, although some of the larger specimens are thought to be 2000 years old. Their estimated lifespan is 400 to 1500 years. Growth occurs annually during the summer months.

The sexes are separate, i.e. male plants and female plants. The male cones are salmon-coloured, small, oblong cone-like structures, and the female cones are blue-green, larger and more tapering. At Kirstenbosch, they flower from midsummer to autumn. The male flower has a sterile, modified pistil-like structure, which exudes nectar (50% sugar content) from a modified stigma-like structure. The female cone has exposed stigmas and also produces a nectar droplet.

Uses & cultural aspects

:The core, especially of the female plant, was used as food for people in earlier times. It is said to be very tasty either raw or baked in hot ashes, and this is how it got its Herero name, onyanga, which means onion of the desert.

Derivation of the name & historical aspects
Welwitschia mirabilis was discovered by the Austrian botanist, explorer and medical doctor, Friedrich Welwitsch, in 1859 in the Namib Desert of southern Angola. The story goes that he was so overcome by his find that he knelt down next to it and simply stared! Thomas Baines, the renowned artist and traveller, also found a plant in the dry bed of the Swakop River in Namibia in 1861. Welwitsch sent the first material of Welwitschia to Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, Director of Kew, in 1862. Hooker described it and named it in honour of Welwitsch, despite the fact that Welwitsch recommended that it be named Tumboa, its native Angolan name. Its species name mirabilis means marvellous or wonderful in Latin. The specific name was later changed to bainesii to honour both men involved in its discovery, although mirabilis is the name recognized today.

Because it is so different from other gymnosperms, Welwitschia was placed in its own family in a small order of gymnosperms called the Gnetales. It shares this order with two other families each containing one genus: the Gnetaceae (Gnetum, 30 species) and the Ephedraceae (Ephedra, 40 species). All three genera can stand by themselves, and the relationships between them are remote. There is nothing else like them, and of the three, Welwitschia is the most remote.

Welwitschia is thought to be a relic from the Jurassic period when gymnosperms dominated the world’s flora, its ancestor trapped in an environment that slowly but progressively became more arid, and all its close relatives long since disappeared.