Survival of the Fittest in the Namib Desert

Welwitschia mirabilis (syn. W. bainesii, syn. Tumboa mirabilis, lat. mirabilis = wonderful) is the only species in the monotypic gymnosperm genus Welwitschia.

Its name was derived from an Austrian botanist, Friedrich Welwitsch (1806-1872), who discovered this ancient plant in his adventures in Angola’s Namib desert. This finding was noted as one of the most important in the botanical field in the 19th century, compared to the discovery of Victoria amazonica and Rafflesia arnoldii.

Friedrich Welwitsch

The distribution of Welwitschia mirabilis is quite wide, spreading from the Nicolau River in southern Angola to the Kuiseb River in Namibia and approximately 100 km inland off the coast in an extremely arid habitat with less than 100mm of rainfall annually.

The distribution of Welwitschia in Western Africa

Populations of Welwitschia mirabilis prosper in places where there are natural reserves of underground water but mostly surviving on moisture from fog and dew. Also, the powerful dry winds break its two large leaves (up to 9 metres long) into a multitude of fringes that grow continuously and it looks as if the plant has multiple leaves. Originally, W. mirabilis has a stem base with two powerful lobes situated on its superior end and each holds one integral leaf but the winds quickly change its appearance.

Obviously, these amazing specimens represent an undisclosed desire for every passionate plant collector. Angola’s desert is embroidered with hidden land mines and makes it dangerous for anyone to venture into unknown land hunting this unique desert jewel.

Unfortunately, Namibia doesn’t have any protection against those willing to get their hands on Welwitschia mirabilis. Also, the plant itself doesn’t possess any means of defense against several threatening factors, such as overgrazing, pathogens, off-road vehicles or wild plant collectors.

All in all, its amazing longevity is astounding, carbon dating showing that some specimens are up to 1500 years old. People may not realize now that even this isolated plant is important as well for the world’s flora because it is one of the oldest plants known to man. If humans keep threatening its existence, this two-leaf miracle will disappear forever as many did before and maybe only then we will realize that Mother Earth has just lost one of its crown diamonds. But it will be too late.

A large specimen of Welwitschia mirabilis

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