Welwitschia mirabilis – Welwitschia

Found in Pit Glasshouse at Chelsea Physic Garden

When discovered by the Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch in 1859, he 'could do nothing but kneel down and gaze at it, half in fear lest a touch should prove it a figment of the imagination'. It is a strange looking plant!

This species is restricted to the Namib Desert of Namibia and Angola. It is usually found within a few hundred kilometres of the coast.

Considered a dwarf tree or shrub occasionally gaining a height of two metres (although usually less than one metre), Welwitschia mirablilis comprises two leaves, a stem base and a taproot.

From seedlings, the first leaves continue to grow horizontally from the stem base for the lifespan of the plant, a most unusual, if not unique, characteristic.

Weathering eventually causes the leaves to become frayed and split along parallel margins preventing the leaves from extending across the desert ground for more than a few metres. The torn and twisted leaves of the adult plant give the impression that there are multiple leaves, hence the description 'octopus-like'.

W. mirabilis is dioecious, meaning male and female reproductive parts (cones) are produced on separate plants.

Although Welwitschia mirabilis is a slow grower, it has remarkable longevity, (some specimens are around 2,000 years old) and at present, abundant populations do not suggest the species is threatened. However, there is an increasing risk from a fungal pathogen that infects the female cones and seeds, severely reducing seed viability. Additional reported threats include injury or death from off-road vehicles, collection of wild plants and overgrazing by zebra, rhino and domestic animals.

Perversely, the 30 year civil war in Angola may have afforded some protection to this species; with land mines remaining in some areas these populations are unlikely to be disturbed in the near future. W. mirabilis is protected within a system of national parks and communal conservatories in Namibia and Angola.

It is monitored for illegal trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and is protected by the Nature Conservation Ordinance in Namibia.

Although it does not meet the criteria for a Red List threatened category at present W. mirabilis is listed as Near Threatened, meaning it should be carefully monitored to ensure it does not become endangered.

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