As beautiful as many flowers are, it’s always the curiosities I’ve been drawn to and, as far as oddities go, Welwitschia mirabilis is up there among the weirdest.
Upon first seeing the first Welwitschia arrive at Kew in 1863 the Regius Keeper exclaimed:
“It is out of the question the most wonderful plant ever brought to this country – and one of the ugliest!”
The plant looks like something from a lunar landscape, though this is hardly surprising, considering it comes from the Namib desert, one of the hottest and driest places on earth, and an area full of lesser-known natural wonders.
Welwitschia produces only two leaves during its whole life, and they grow continuously.
In ideal conditions who knows how long they would get, but in the savage desert winds of the Namib, they are constantly worn down and as they grow longer and broader, they are shredded.
The benefit of such leaves is that they shelter the plant’s roots from the scorching heat and they are the longest-lived leaves in the plant kingdom.
Speaking of longevity, Welwitschia has that covered too, some of the older specimens have been carbon-dated to over 1500 years old.
The plant has taproot which can reach three metres in depth, yet plants may go a full year without rainfall and have adapted to absorb atmospheric moisture through their leaves, using stomata to open as the early morning fog passes over and closing before the heat of the day ensues.
Plants are either male or female and small cones appear instead of flowers, showing their closer genetic link to conifers and cycads.
You can, occasionally, find seeds for sale, though it goes without saying that you will need to provide very specific growing conditions, be very patient and be prepared for your great, great, great-grandchildren to inherit it.