Welwitschia Mirabilis Is an Ancient Plant Species Capable of Surviving for Thousands of Years

by Deepti S9 months ago
Picture Welwitschia Mirabilis Is an Ancient Plant Species Capable of Surviving for Thousands of Years

Did you know there exists an unusual plant that defies all odds by thriving for almost two millennia with just two permanent leaves? Meet Welwitschia mirabilis, the desert plant that is unlike any known plant on Earth. Welwitschia also holds the Guinness World Record for the longest-living leaves on Earth! Growing in the harsh Namib Desert, this is surely one of the rarest of botanical wonders. Ready to learn all about it?

Discovered in 1859, Welwitschia mirabilis Is a Desert Plant with the Longest Leaf Lifespan 

Welwitschia mirabilis discovered in 1859
Welwitschia mirabilis discovered in 1859. Image Credit: Hans Hillewaert/ Wikimedia.org

In 1859, the Austrian botanist and medical doctor Friedrich Welwitsch discovered Welwitschia mirabilis in the Namib Desert in southwestern Africa. Mr Welwitsch was amazed by the peculiar plant. A few years later, in 1861, a well-known artist and traveler, Thomas Baines, found another Welwitschia plant in the dry bed of Namibia’s Swakop River.

To know more about the plant, Mr. Welwitsch sent the first sample of Welwitsch, in 1862, to Joseph Dalton Hooker, who was the director of Kew Gardens in London. Despite Welwitsch’s recommendation to name the plant Tumboa (the Angolan name), Hooker characterized the plant and went on to give it Welwitsch’s name in honor of his discovery.

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Anyway, the specific name was modified to Welwitschia bainesii in recognition of the two people who contributed to its discovery. However, according to botanical nomenclature regulations, mirabilis,  which means “marvelous” or “wonderful” in Latin, is the current and valid name.

Welwitschia is a rare gymnosperm. Gymnosperm is a kind of plant that does not produce seeds within a fruit but rather is found easily on the surface of plants, either on leaves or tips of the plant’s stalks. It is believed that gymnosperms survived the time of the dinosaurs! Welwitschia is distinct to the extent that it was assigned with its own family within the Gnetales, which is a small group of gymnosperms.

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With Just a Pair of Permanent Leaves, Welwitschia Can Live for Thousands of Years!

Welwitschia mrabilis leaves
Welwitschia mirabilis leaves. Image Credit: Amada44/Wikimedia.org

Welwitschia mirabilis is comprised of two big permanent leaves along with a stem base and roots. These leaves are wide and light green in color. When the thick leaves grow, they eventually split into multiple segments. This gives the plant an illusion of many leaves.

Before Welwitschia divides into numerous thin roots, the plant’s deep taproot runs downward for up to 1.5 meters, i.e., five feet or even more. It is believed that the taproot of Welwitschia mirabilis must have access to deep sources of water due to the fact that the Namib region receives very little rain. Taproots are known to absorb nutrients and water from the soil. The stem of Welwitschia is hollow and short, with an unbranched woody crown.

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The plant can grow to be about 500 millimeters tall, and the largest one ever recorded, found in the Messum Mountains, reached a height of 1.8 meters. Yet another noteworthy Welwitschia near the Swakop River is 1.2 meters in height and 8.7 meters in width.

Female Pollen Cone of Welwitschia mirabilis.
Female Pollen Cone of Welwitschia mirabilis. Image Credit: Hans Hillewaert/Wikimedia.org

It is easy to tell the difference between male and female Welwitschia plants. Male plants have small, oval-shaped structures that resemble cones and are pinkish in color. On the other hand, female plants have bigger, tapering cones that are bluish-green.

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Male Pollen Cone of Welwitschia mirabilis
Male Pollen Cone of Welwitschia mirabilis. Image Credit: Cole Shatto/Wikimedia.org

Welwitschia is mainly known for surviving for ages! By using radiocarbon dating, it has been established that Welwitschias can have a lifespan ranging from approximately 400 to 1,500 years. However, some of them could be as old as 2,000 years, setting the Guinness World Record for the longest-lived leaves of any plant! These desert plants go through some summertime growth each year.

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Can You Grow Welwitschia mirabilis at Home?

Closer look at Welwitschia mirabilis
Closer look at Welwitschia mirabilis. Image Credit: Joachim Huber/Flickr

It is possible to grow Welwitschia mirabilis at home.  Firstly, in a container or pot, you need to sow seeds in well-draining, sandy soil in the spring or summer. Place rocks or gravel at the container’s base to ensure drainage is adequate. Additionally, maintaining continuous moisture in the soil for the first eight months with extra care while transplanting can save the taproots from damage. You can also gradually expose the plant to filtered sunlight and regulate watering according to the season to avoid leaf burn, i.e., water less in the winter and more in the late spring.

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When it comes to its food, feed Welwitschia inorganic fertilizer in the spring and with organic seaweed-based fertilizer in the summer. Welwitschia generally thrives without any diseases, but for the first year or so, you should water it with a fungicide because it is susceptible to attacks by woolly aphids when it is young.

Would you want to grow a Welwitschia plant at home?

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Picture Welwitschia Mirabilis Is an Ancient Plant Species Capable of Surviving for Thousands of Years
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