Welwitschia

The national bird of Namibia is the African Fish Eagle; a majestic bird, but one that many birders in Africa has seen. The national animal of Namibia is the Oryx, and although it is certainly a beautiful antelope, it is also quite common in Africa. Namibia’s national plant is truly and weirdly unique. It is the utterly bizarre welwitschia.

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The welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis) is a strange plant with long, wide strap-like leaves, a stem base and roots, that grows on the ground. During its entire life, each plant produces only two leaves, which often split into many segments as a result of the leaves being whipped by the wind. Its two permanent leaves are unique in the plant kingdom. They are the original leaves from when the plant was a seedling, and they just continue to grow and are never shed. Carbon dating of the largest plants (the largest recorded specimen is 1.8m/6ft high and 8.7m/29ft wide) have shown that some individuals are over 1500 years old!

Another strange fact is that the welwitschia is a dioecious plant, which means that each plant develops either male or female reproductive organs. The male plant produces smaller salmon-coloured cones, and the female plant larger bluish-green cones. Flowering takes place from summer to autumn. Both male and female plants produce large quantities of nectar which attracts wasps, tree bugs and flies and ensures pollination. The plant also produces seeds, which has wings which facilitate dispersal by wind.

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The welwitschia is sometimes called a “living fossil” and is endemic to the arid and unforgiving Namib desert, and grows in isolated communities in a narrow strip, about 1 000 km (600 mi) long up the coast from the Kuiseb River in central Namibia to Mossamedes in southern Angola. The area receives no rainfall during some years and averages fewer than 100 mm (4 in) per year. Most specimens are found within 80km (50mi) of the coast in a fog belt, suggesting that the fog is an important moisture source. The fog develops during the night and usually subsides by mid-morning. The leaves are broad and large and droop downwards. This is an ideal way for it to water its own roots from water collected by condensation. The plants are often confined to dry watercourses or next to higher rainfall regions, and they occasionally grow on rocky outcrops. All these habitats point to an additional underground water supply. The plant has a long taproot, allowing it to reach this underground water.

The plant was discovered by the Austrian botanist, explorer and medical doctor, Friedrich Welwitsch, in 1859 in the Namib Desert of southern Angola. The story goes that he was so overcome by his find that he knelt down next to it and simply stared at it for a long time! Welwitsch sent the first material of the plant to Sir Joseph Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens in London, in 1862. Hooker described it and named it in honour of Welwitsch, despite the fact that Welwitsch recommended that it be named Tumboa, its native Angolan name.

The welwitschia is not only found in the coat of arms of Namibia, but is also the name of the national rugby union side that recently played in the 2019 IRB Rugby World Cup. It symbolises endurance, survival in a hostile environment and perseverance against all odds.
To see this remarkable and unique plant for yourself, visit the wonderful country of Namibia on one of our Nature Travel Namibia tours. We offer specialised private and small group safaris, taking you to all of the country’s natural wonders, showcasing its landscapes, animals, birds and nature in general. Visit www.naturetravelnamibia.com for a lot more information, or enquire directly by email at info@naturetravelnamibia.com