Wednesday, February 6, 2008

48: Welwitschia mirabilis

Welwitschia mirabilis, one of the oldest (and definitely one of the most peculiar) plants on earth is endemic to the Namib Desert. Namib Desert belongs to the world's oldest and most arid deserts. It spans around 1000 miles (1,600 km) along the Atlantic Ocean coast of Namibia up to the south-western part of Angola. Welwitschia is found all over the Namib desert, but rarely more than 100 miles (160 km) away from the coast, moreover, its distribution coincides with the fog belt (similarly to our Californian Redwoods).

Welwitschia's Herero name, onyanga, means "onion of the desert" as apparently its core is quite tasty and was used as food by Herero people in earlier times. (Now it is not anymore as it is protected by law).

Welwitschia looks truly bizarre as it consists only of two leaves, a stem base and roots. Its stem is woody and elliptical in shape. Its leaves are broad, leathery and strap-shaped. They lie on the ground and with time they become torn to ribbons, as they are never shed. According to carbon dating Welwitschias are on average around 500-600 years old, although some of the larger specimens are thought to be 2000 years old.

One of the oldest specimens, truly mirable Welwitschia: