More about the Welwitschia plant
Every holiday to Namibia should include a stop-off to admire the strange-looking and bizarre Welwitschia plant. There is nothing else like it in the rest of the world and it is only found growing in isolated patches in the arid Namib Desert, in central Namibia. It is considered a living fossil.
The Welwitschia is found in a narrow strip of land that stretches from the south of Walvis Bay in Namibia to the Nicolau River in Angola. Most travel packages to Namibia will include a trip to Swakopmund and then it’s a dusty 50km ride from the town to find a Welwitschia growing in the extreme heat and rocky ground of the desert.
The plants are always found within 100 to 150km from the coast which coincides with the spread inland of the coastal fog. The plant relies on moisture from the fog to survive. For centuries it has withstood extreme temperature fluctuations, from between 7°C at night and up to 50°C during the day. The plant looks pretty prehistoric but it is neither endangered nor rare, only protected by law because of its uniqueness.
The cone of the female plant was a source of food in earlier times and its common name used by the Herero people is ‘onyanga’ which means ‘onion of the desert’. The cone allegedly is tasty to eat either raw or baked in hot ashes (although the days of eating a Welwitschia meal are over).
It’s a pretty messy-looking plant that looks like it has a number of leaves draped around a central woody trunk. In fact, it only produces two leaves in its entire life. They are shredded by the vicious desert wind and hence its scruffy look.
The plant was discovered in 1859 by an Austrian botanist, explorer and medical doctor, Friedrich Welwitsch, in Southern Angola. Word has it that when Dr Welwitsch found it, he fell onto his knees and stared at it in wonder. Its original species name ‘mirabilis’ means marvellous or wonderful in Latin which is an apt description for this fascinating plant.
Botanists believe the Welwitschia can be dated back to the Jurassic period. Its ancestors were obviously trapped in an environment that slowly but progressively became more arid but the species somehow survived and adapted to the harsh desert conditions. The oldest plants have been carbon-dated to be over 2 000 years old, while the average age of a Welwitschia plant you’ll see when you travel to Namibia is between 500-600 years old. The plant can grow up to 1.8m in height.
It’s not a pretty plant to look at and in fact looks like a dishevelled mess lying on the hot sand. But what you’re witnessing is a fascinating species that has survived for centuries in an isolated and inhospitable environment. If it could talk, the Welwitschia would tell you a thing or two about dinosaurs.
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