Friday, August 26, 2011

Welwitschia: A Really Weird Plant!

There's this very bizarre plant, and it grows in Africa, in the Namib Desert, and it's called Welwitschia.  And not only does it have a weird name, but it looks really weird, too, sort of like a big pile of old, twisted, halfway dried-up leaves.  Welwitschias are called a "living fossil" because they probably were already around back in the Jurassic Period.  And if you ever saw the movie Jurassic Park, you will know that there were still scary dinosaurs alive back then.

Welwitschias were first discovered in 1859 by an Austrian botanist named Friedrich Welwitsch.  Of course, the native people had known about this plant for a long time already, but Mr. Welwitsch was the first western scientist to find it.  According to the story, Mr. Welwitsch was so surprised by his discovery that he just knelt down next to the plant and stared at it.  Later, he sent some plant material to Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, who was the director of Kew Gardens in England.  Mr. Welwitsch wanted to name the plant Tumboa, which is what the native Angolan people called it, but Sir Hooker decided to name the plant in honor of Mr. Welwitsch.  The full name is Welwitschia mirabilis, and mirabilis means "wonderful" or "marvelous" in Latin.

There are lots of mirabilis things to know about welwitschias, like for instance that a single plant can be anywhere between 400 and 1,000 years old, and a few might even be as old as 2,000.  This is even older than Mom, and I think she's pretty darned old!

Another amazing thing about welwitschias is that each plant only has two leaves, and it has these same two leaves for its entire life, even if it lives 1,000 years!  Of course, after 1,000 years, those two leaves might look a little shredded and ragged, but they are still the original two leaves.  Eventually, the leaves can grow as long as four meters.  The tallest welwitschia known is 1.8 meters high, and the widest one is 8.7 meters.

The place where welwitschias grow is very, very dry because it is a desert.  Sometimes there is no rain for two or three years, or even longer.  But the welwitschias are very smart, and they live close to the coast, where there is a lot of fog.  And the reason there is fog there is because during the night, the hot desert air meets up with the cold currents in the ocean, and that makes a really thick fog that lasts until about 10:00 a.m. the next day.  The fog turns into water drops on the welwitschia leaves, and it runs down the leaves and into the ground to water the plant.  Also the leaves can absorb some moisture directly from the air.  And there is a long taproot that goes way down in the ground, looking for any water that might be down there.

Female cones in flower
Some welwitschias are males, and some are females.  To get seeds, you need one of each kind of plant.  Then you need some flies to pollinate the plants, but sometimes bees or wasps will do it.  A lot of the seeds get eaten by small animals, and other seeds die because they get a fungus.  To sprout, the seeds have to have several days of fairly heavy rain, which is not something that happens every year in the desert.  But the seeds know how to be patient and wait for the right conditions to come along, even if it takes a few years.

Male cones in flower
Rhinos and antelopes sometimes chew on welwitschia leaves to get the juice, and then they spit out the stringy parts.  Also they might eat the soft part of the plant in the groove between the two leaves.  But this does not really hurt the welwitschia, and it just grows out again.

A long time ago, people used to eat the core of the welwitschias, especially the female plants because they were yummier.  They either ate them raw or they baked them in hot ashes.  This is why the Herero people called the plant onyanga, which means "onion of the desert."

Well, when the cactus show and sale were happening earlier this month, Mom saw some welwitschia plants for sale.  She didn't know much about them, but she went home and read about them on the internet, and after that she decided to buy one, even though they were kind of expensive.  So now Mom has a welwitschia of her very own, but hers is not 1000 years old yet, or even 500 years old.  It is only maybe one year old, so it is still kind of small.  Mom hopes it will be happy and will not up and die on her, like a lot of plants have done in the past.  But if it does die, then Mom says she will not take it personally.  She will just figure that she was not meant to grow welwitschias, and she will not get another one.


  1. WOW...that is one weird plant. Oh, this is Di typing, because mom said it was my turn. I bet my brother, Dodi, would like to chew on that plant! Not me, I don't like plants, but Dodi likes to chew on anything & everything. My mom said she has never heard of that plant. She also thought it very interesting it only has 2 leaves; I'm not sure why that's so interesting, but then I don't pay much attention to plants. I best close. oops, I meant to say hi to Carson and I think it's very nice that you and your mom are taking such good care of him. :)
    Love, Di

  2. I think my brothers would like to pee on a welwitschia, but I would not be too interested in it, unless there were cicadas hiding under the leaves. Mostly I just wrote about it because Mom said I should, and I have to keep her happy so she will keep feeding me. LOL
    Love, Piper

  3. I think your mom needs to grow better plants. Why would you grow plants that taste so bad wild animals who are starving to death spit it out? My mom grows zucchini and it's so yummy nobody spits any of it out. She also has cantalope, carrots and corn. AND she has some poppies in the garden, but she says they are not the recreational poppies. I have no idea what that means, but I think it means we can't eat them.

    --Zest, superstar in training

  4. Dear Zest,
    My mom is way too lazy to grow all those plants you can eat, and anyway, the squirrels and rabbits would eat them before they got big enough for Mom to eat. No, Mom just likes weird plants, but I don't know why. We are just hoping that no rhinos or antelopes come into our yard to chew on our welwitschia! My mom said to tell your mom that if she grows nasturtiums instead of poppies, she can eat the flowers and leaves, and it's not even illegal!

    I heard that you were in a puppy aquarium. Was there any water in there? How about tasty fish for you to eat?

    Your friend, Piper

  5. I think the poppies are mom's way of pretending she has some sort of connection to Georgia OKeefe. Pretty pathetic if you ask me, but she didn't. And yes, planting edible plants is a way better use of garden space.

    The puppy aquarium was horrible! I don't know why *I* had to be in there, it wasn't *my* puppy aquarium. And no, after I ate all the crumbs and cleaned my bowl there wasn't anything to eat in there at all.

    superstar in training

  6. Oh! Georgia O'Keefe! Mom likes her paintings, but I think the flowers are WAY too big. They look big enough to eat Milwaukee! LOL In my opinion, Georgia O'Keefe should have painted dogs instead.

    I'm sorry there weren't any fishies to eat in the puppy aquarium, but at least you didn't drown, so that's good!

    Your friend, Piper

  7. I really wanna buy this welwitschia mirabilis plant!!! Can anyone please tell me where I can buy them???? Thank you so much!!

  8. This is such a nice overview of this plant! Thank you so much for all the great information! Really great work :) amazing!!

    1. Thanks! I'm glad you liked my blog entry and wrote to tell me so. Of course, the ending of the welwitschia story is that Mom killed her plant within a couple of months of when she bought it. She has never been tempted to buy another one!