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Welwitschia Mirabilis

Centuries old desert plant

The Welwitschia Mirabilis is a plant which is endemic to the Namib desert in Namibia and Southern Angola. Named after Friedrich Welwitsch who "discovered" the plant in 1859, some of the specimen are estimated to be between 1000 and 1500 years old.


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A scientifically substantiated examination, which should be taken with a punch of humour.

If a plant makes it to the National Coat of Arms of Namibia it must be a very important and a very beautiful one. Far from it: no garden lover, nature friend nor house owner will put a plant like the Welwitschia into his home ground. A plant that looks like it has just been run over by a dozen 4x4s. So what is it about this plant whose most famous specimen about 50 km out of Swakopmund attracts hundreds of visitors annually? 

At least the oryx antelopes, rhinos, zebras and other plant eaters won’t ask this question, as they like it so much – they could just eat it up.

It’s also not rarity, as the Welwitschia occurs in an area of the Namib Desert that stretches over 1200 km from southern Angola to the mouth of the Kuiseb River. It does not grow directly at the coast, but keeps its distance to it, having its most dense occurrence about 50 to 60 km away from the Atlantic.

Luckily, apart from a dense network of roots close to the ground surface with a diameter of up to 30 metres the Welwitschia also has a taproot that is able to reach groundwater provided that it stands at about 3 metre depth. Most of the water however is taken up by the fine network of roots. Water is provided in the form of dew (fog) as rain is an absolute exception. The assumption that the Welwitschia is able to take up water through the leaves is wrong. The leaves are arranged in such a way that they a well capable of storing water. As the seeds take a while to form sufficient roots to be able to germinate many of them don’t survive. Botanists have found out that only about 0.1% of the seeds produced manage to germinate. Like with humans the Welwitschia has female and male specimens, pollination takes place with the help of insects whereby men and plant again differ considerably.

The "discovery" of the Welwitschia

According to relevant works of reference the plant was „discovered“ by and named after the Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch in Angola in 1859. Of course the local population had known this plant for much longer and had named it accordingly. In Angola it is called n’tumbo (stump), the Herero name it onyanga (desert onion) and in Afrikaans it is called “twee-blaar-kanniedood” (two-leave-can’t-die). The Afrikaaners were clever people as this name describes two characteristic attributes of the Welwitschia: its durability as a desert plant and the fact that it only has two leaves. These two leaves grow continuously, but slowly and pretend, as they are torn with increasing age, to have several leaves or even a whole heap of leaves. With time these leaves frazzle even at their tips as the wind, the hooves of antelopes and other Welwitschia-eaters and some unobserving tourists take their toll. There are exemptions regarding the two leaves. Specimens with two pair of leaves have been found close to the Brandberg. This population with four leaves is estimated to make up 5% of all specimens. Some details of Welwitschia also deviate depending on their habitat in Angola or Namibia so that two sub-species have been identified. It is assumed that the Welwitschia has spread from Namibia up north and has modified itself with time.

Giant Welwitschia and Welwitschia plains

As mentioned a famous specimen is found close to Swakopmund. The location is marked on every tourist map under „interesting things to see“. This specific plant is estimated to be at least 1000 years old some even claim it to be 1500 years old. The exact age is not known. One could establish the age more accurately, as the stem of the plant, which can reach a diameter of 1 metre but is mostly covered by sand, has annual rings. That would mean the end of the Welwitschia though. Many visitors travel along the so-called Welwitschia-Drive, which leads 50 km from Swakopmund to the fenced, old Welwitschia at the end of the Welwitschia plains. On the Welwitschia plains an estimated of 6000 plants can be found. The second name of the Welwitschia namely mirabilis, is derived from Latin meaning „wonderful“. Nevertheless it is not guaranteed that guest will call out “mirabilis” on sight of the plant. One should also not be surprised that many plants have a circle of stones around them. These have the purpose to keep tourists from getting too close and from destroying the fragile network of roots. These circles have been laid down by many responsible tour guides.

The Welwitschia is not only found in the coat of arms of Namibia, but also in the one of Swakopmund and the Kunene Region. Here it is well understandable as the plant occurs in great numbers. Regarding the coat of arms of Namibia it is more difficult to relate to, but it does stand for endurance, survival in hostile environment and for the perseverance against all odds.

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