Welwitschia Mirabilis: African Tree Lives 2,000 Years

The Welwitschia mirabilis is variously called a plant or a small tree, although many botanists consider it a dwarf tree related to the pine. Though it is grown on other continents today, it is believed to have originated in Africa. It is found in a narrow area of the the Namib Desert in southwestern Africa for about 600 to 700 miles or 1,000 kilometers from near the Kuiseb River in central Namibia to the city of Mossamedes in southwestern Angola.

It’s Edible; How It Survives Harsh Environments

Belonging to the Welwitschiaceae family, the Welwitschia is sometimes eaten by humans, who more often than not eat part of the female tree either raw or after it has been cooked in ashes. The elephant, zebra, rhinoceros, oryx and springbok are among the animals that eat it. The typical tree grows to about 500 millimeters or 19.69 inches tall. The tallest Welwitschia on record was found in Namibia and measured 1.8 meters or 70.87 inches in height.

But, in general, it’s not height that marks the Welwitschia’s appearance but its broad,stubby look. Its leaves droop down, and as time passes, the dusty and windy conditions of its environment may put some rips in the leaves even though they remain more or less immovable. The broad leaves help to keep the tree’s soil moist and cool while also lessening soil erosion. Their bark is like cork.

A Cone-Bearing Plant with Deep Roots

Seeds from the tree sprout only in heavy rains and since the Welwitschia grows in arid and semi-arid environments, sometimes it’s a long time between rains. Fortunately, however, the seeds of the Welwitschia are hardy and can survive for years before heavy rains come to make them sprout. Heavy fog is essential to the Welwitschia. When the seeds do sprout, the fog of the areas where they grow gives them the moisture they need to exist until the next rains. The tree’s leaves have stomata or very small pores that absorb the fog’s moisture.

The Welwitschia is a cone-bearer with separate male and female cones. The female cones are larger than the male cones, which flower. The flowers on the male cones produce pollen to pollinate the female trees with the help of an insect called probergrothiussexpunctalis. A female Welwitschia can easily produce 10,000 seeds. In the spring, the female cones release seeds, which are carried by the wind. The tree’s roots can go down into the ground as much as 30 meters or 98 feet. It also has side roots.


Discovery by Europeans

The Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch first saw the plant in the Namib Desert in Angola in 1859. Three years later he brought it to the attention of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (England). Hooker named the plant after Welwitsch. Mirabilis means marvelous in Latin. Even though the species name was changed to bainesii, it never caught on so the term mirabilis is still used today.

It has been written that Welwitsch preferred to have the plant named Tumboa, the name native Angolans gave it. The plant is also called N’Tumbo (onion of the desert) by native Angolans. The Nama and Damara peoples of Namibia call it Kharos. Another name the Damara people give it is Nyanka. Another name the Nama people give it is Khurub. In Afrikaans it is called Tweeblaarkanniedood. An image of the Welwitschia is one of the elements on the coat of arms of Namibia. It was also put on Welwitsch’s tombstone.