Welwitschia mirabilis is a desert-adapted plant endemic to the Namib Desert. Due to the harsh environment, the plant grows close to the ground minimising exposure to the Namib Desert winds. The tallest plants are no more than 1.5 meters tall, with a circumference of around six meters.
Found only in Namibia and southern Angola the species is named after an Austrian botanist ‘Friedrich Welwitsch’. However, the plant has several more interesting names. In Angola it is called ‘n’tumbo’ (the stump), in Afrikaans it is called “twee blaar kanniedood” (two leaves that cannot die) and the Herero people of Namibia call it ‘onyanga’ (desert onion). The plant is notoriously difficult to cultivate, but there is a splendid specimen found in Kew Gardens, London. Ironically it seems impossible to imagine a location more opposed to the conditions found in the Namib Desert.
Female welwitschia cones
Welwitschia near Messum Crater
Male welwitschia cones
The oldest Welwitschia live for thousands of years, and during this time only have two primary leaves. These fray and split over time, giving the illusion of multiple blades. Female plants have cones, similar to those found on fir trees; these cones are much smaller and more plentiful in males of the species. The primary water source for the plant is the desert fog, which condenses on the leaves and is then funnelled down to the shallow root system.
These are the most striking plants found in the Namib Desert and as such are an iconic Namibian species. Welwitschia mirabilis appear on the Namibian coat of arms as well as on postage stamps. Since independence, ‘The Welwitschias’ – Namibia’s rugby and cricket teams have proudly represented the country at several world cup (and one day will register a win!)