Welwitschia mirabilis

An Ancient Desert Survivor

If you were the first to find this plant growing in the Namibian and Angolian deserts of west Africa you might be highly perplexed.  It has only two leaves that grow from its base outwards.  These leaves continue to grow throughout its life, and we know now that some of the oldest plants are over 2000 years old.  But what may be even more remarkable is that it has no flowers. Instead it has naked seeds. Welwitschias are one of the lone survivors of one of the four lineages of gymnosperms, which today are known as the Gnetophyta. They’re known today as living fossils, much like crocodiles and ceolacanths.

Where are Welwitschias found?

In the wild, welwitschias are found in the deserts of west Africa in the countries of Namibia and Angola. While they are getting rarer due to their slow growth and fame by collectors, there are a fair number of these plants still in the wild. There are apparently more in Angola, due to the fact that there are more land mines in that country.

There are many welwitschias in botanical gardens as well. In fact, many gardens seek this plant to have as a specimen because of its unique taxonomy. One notable garden that has them is Mitchell Park Conservatory (The Domes) in Milwaukee.

Unique Desert Adaptations

Welwitschias have several special adaptations that allow them to live in the desert. First, they have unique structures on their leaves that allow them to harvest moisture from the dew that forms at night. They also have the ability to to perform CAM photosynthesis; they are the only gymnosperm that have this ability.

More Information

  • Bustard, L. 1990. The ugliest plant of the world: the story of Welwitschia mirabilis. Kew Magazine. 7:85-90.
  • Jacobson K. M., and E. Lester. 2003. A first assessment of genetic variation in Welwitschia mirabilis Hook. Journal of Heredity 94:212-217.
  • Wikipedia: This is a good source to see how the taxonomy has changed recently

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Written by Rob Nelson

Rob is an ecologist from the University of Hawaii. He is the co-creator and director of Untamed Science. His goal is to create videos and content that are entertaining, accurate, and educational. When he's not making science content, he races whitewater kayaks and works on Stone Age Man.

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