Welwitschia mirabilis Hook.f.

Wonder Plant

Bizarre plant with a partially buried woody stem looking like an inverted elephant foot and up to 1.5 m wide in the wild and a deep tap root. It may be described as a dwarf tree since the flattened stem is a result of the early death of the apical bud and subsequent growth around the rim of the central depression. Leaves two, large, strap-like, growing from 2 grooves at the base of 'foot'. They are the only leaves that the plant produces and may continue to grow outwards from the base for over 100 years; the tips becoming frayed and worn by the rigours of the desert. Old leaves may be up to 3 m long. Plants unisexual the organs cone-like but males with stamens and in the female cones the ovules are still naked though protected by two enveloping scale-like structures. A style-like structure is also present. Seed winged.

These plants are of special botanical interest being among the longest-lived in the world. Recent tests using carbon-14 dating place the age of the average wild plant at 5-600 years while some of the older ones are estimated to be 2000 years or more old.Because of its great botanical significance this plant is grown at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne for its educational and curiosity value but it has little ornamental merit.

South West Africa (Namib Desert) where it grows naturally along dry watercourses in desert regions - sometimes even in the loose desert sand.


Source: Spencer, R. (1995). Welwitschiaceae. In: Spencer, R.. Horticultural Flora of South-eastern Australia. Volume 1, Ferns, conifers & their allies. The identification of garden and cultivated plants. University of New South Wales Press.

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Distribution map
kingdom Plantae
phylum   Tracheophyta
class    Gnetopsida
order     Welwitschiales
family      Welwitschiaceae
genus       Welwitschia Hook.f.