Feature, Intrepid Welwitschia Hunters in the Namib Desert, Namibia

Welwitschia

In Travel, Africa, Namibia, The rest by tony6 Comments

Featured image: Intrepid Welwitschia Hunters in the Namib Desert, Namibia, 1 October 2023

ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  24 November 2023

This is the second article in a series on Southern Africa inspired by a birding trip to Namibia, Botswana and Victoria Falls with Rockjumper and two safaris to Chobe National Park in Botswana with Kalahari Tours and Kruger National Park in South Africa with Lion Roar Safaris.

The articles in order so far are: 1 A Lark in Africa2 Welwitschia3 Safari to Namibia Part 1, 4 Safari to Namibia, Botswana and Victoria Falls Part 2, 5 Large Raptors and 6 Chobe National Park Camping.

Welwitschia is also called tumboa, which brings to mind the Tumtum tree. I think the opening lines:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

(Lewis Carroll Jabberwocky)

Are a particularly apt introduction to Welwitschia. Nothing else can do the job!

Marvellous Welwitschia

The Welwitschia in all its Glory, Namib Desert, Namibia

The Welwitschia in all its Glory, Namib Desert, Namibia

Main Points

  • Welwitschia weird and wonderful
  • Why is Welwitschia weird?
  • How long-lived are they?
  • What about water
  • Where Welwitschia fits
  • Why is it called Welwitschia?
  • Why is it called a ‘living fossil’?
  • Another ‘living fossil’ in Australia
  • Where we saw Welwitschia
  • Another weird thing — niche construction
  • Welwitschia beetles
  • Growing Welwitschia
  • Eating Welwitschia
  • Conservation status
  • Comment

1 Introduction

I’m not much of a botanist but a friend and fellow art dabbler Max Bourke when he heard we were going to Southern Africa said that we had to do two things and tell him about it.

We had to see a Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea) which is the most numerous wild bird in the world, a population of around 1.5 billion breeding birds; and

We had to visit a Welwitschia plant (Welwitschia mirabilis) one of the strangest plants in the world.

We managed to do both. We saw Red-billed Quelea, only in dozens of birds. Massive flocks are the scourge of grain growers in Africa.

We undertook an 18-day birding tour in Namibia and Botswana with a firm called Rockjumper in September-October 2023. The tour ended in Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe).

A Succulent in Welwitschia Country

A Succulent in Welwitschia Country

We saw Welwitschia in the Namib-Naukluft National Park near Walvis Bay and Swakopmund in Namibia.

The Namib-Naukluft National Park at 49,768 sq km (19,216 sq miles) is the largest game park in Africa.  It consists of a strip of land 600 km long between the Atlantic Ocean and the edge of the Great Escarpment in Namibia. It encompasses the Namib Desert, considered the world’s oldest desert, the Naukluft mountain range and the lagoon at Sandwich Harbour.

Welwitschia is only found in the Namib Desert in Namibia and southern Angola. If one includes Angola, the north-south range of Welwitschia is a thousand kilometres. Welwitschia mirabilis is Namibia’s national plant.

2 Overview

Common epithets about Welwitschia include: the toughest plant in the world, the longest-lived leaves in the plant kingdom, survives in the driest desert.

SANBI (the South African National Biodiversity Institute) says:

Weird, peculiar, wonderful, strange, bizarre, fascinating, and of course, unique, are the kind of words that are used to describe the welwitschia. It is one of the few things on Earth that can truly claim to be one of a kind. There really is nothing like it.

Informal sources commonly refer to it as a ‘living fossil’.

The Group Examines a Medium-Sized Welwitschia, Namib Desert, Namibia

The Group Examines a Medium-Sized Welwitschia, Namib Desert, Namibia

3 Why is Welwitschia Weird?

Encyclopedia Britannica says Welwitschia somewhat resembles a large [wooden] turnip. The plant has a deep taproot extending downwards as much as 1.5 metres before it divides into numerous thin roots. The major part of its stem also remains buried in the sandy soil.

The exposed stem consists of a woody concave disc bearing two very large strap-shaped leaves (up to 2 metres long in mature plants). Both the leaves are thick, leathery, broad and grow opposite one another. They have parallel veins and persist throughout life of the plant. Welwitschia has no mechanism to grow new leaves.

The leaves split into ribbon-like structures and extend twisted or contorted along the surface of the ground. The twin-leaves grow continuously from a basal meristem throughout the life of the plant.

Welwitschia, The Inverted Stem at the Top

Welwitschia, The Inverted Stem at the Top

Hence the leaves persist for the entire life of the plant, leading to description of the longest-lived leaves in the plant kingdom.

4 How Long-lived are they?

Aging Welwitschia is notoriously difficult. Carbon dating tells us on average Welwitschia are 500-600 years old. Their estimated lifespan is 400-1500 years. Some specimens are thought to be 2000 years old or more.

5 What About Water?

Given the Namib Desert is one of the driest deserts in the world, similar to the west coast Atacama Desert in Chile, and frequently receives less than 25 mm rainfall per year, Welwitschia has a water problem. And, given the heat of the sun for much of the year it also has an evaporation problem.

The Welwitschia taproot it is thought must access water not available to other desert plants. In addition, fog from the Atlantic spreads inland for around 100 days per year, which is thought of a water source for most Namib desert plants. The fog along with the Welwitschia is found up to 100-150 km inland.

iPhoto Denise, Welwitschia, Female Cones Growing from the Stem

iPhoto Denise, Welwitschia, Female Cones Growing from the Stem

6 Where Does Welwitschia Fit in the Plant Kingdom?

Welwitschia is a genus that contains only one species Welwitschia mirabilis. It is also alone in its family and order. In the division Gnetphyta it is one of three living relict genera. The other two  genera are Gnetum and Ephedra (none of the three are alike ).

Weltwitschia is a gymnosperm as opposed to flowering plants, which are angiosperms. Both produce seeds. The most well-known of the gymnosperms are conifers or pine trees, but there are many other typical gymnosperms, including ginkgoes and cycads. Gymnosperm seeds develop either on the surface of scales or leaves, which are often modified to form cones. Alternatively, the seeds form on their own, as in the yew or the ginkgo.

Weltwitschia form cones.

Welwitschia, Female Cones

Welwitschia, Female Cones

The sexes are separate. There are male and female Weltwitschia plants. The male cones are salmon-coloured, small, oblong cone-like structures. The female cones are blue-green, larger and more tapering.

The seeds are 36 x 25 mm have a large papery wing and are dispersed by the wind. This happens in spring, when the female cone disintegrates (when our visit occurred).

7 Why is it Called Welwitschia?

Dr Friederich Welwitsch, an Austrian physician, explorer and botanist discovered Welwitschia in 1859 in the Namib Desert in Angola. Dr Joseph Dalton Hooker, a British botanist, named the genus in honour of Dr Welwitsch.

iPhoto Denise, Welwitschia from Above

iPhoto Denise, Welwitschia from Above

8 Why is it Called a ‘Living Fossil’?

Weltwitschia is an ancient plant.

Various estimates have been given for Welwitschia evolution. Some think Welwitschia evolved at the time of the dinosaurs (200 million years ago — mya) or in the mid-Mezozoic 150 mya. Fossil evidence of Weltwitschia have been found in Brazil and Argentina dating from the late Cretaceous 112 – 114 mya. However, South America and Africa were joined in the giant continent of Gondwana. The African and South American part of Gondawana broke up around 140 mya. Hence it is not unreasonable to suggest that Welwitschia evolved earlier than that.

9 Another ‘Living Fossil’ in Australia

We had another relict ‘living fossil’ gymnosperm in Australia discovered in 1994, the Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis). Fewer than 100 adult trees were found growing in a remote canyon in the Wollemi National Park northwest of Sydney. Adult trees grow up to 40 metres (about 130 feet tall).

The site was protected during the 2019-2020 bushfires by installing watering and emergency protection at the site. Since discovery clones are easy to grow and propagate and the Wollemi has been spread widely in public and private gardens.

Denise Photographing a Desert Succulent in Welwitschia Country

Denise Photographing a Desert Succulent in Welwitschia Country

The Wollemi pine may be a younger or contemporaneous ‘living fossil’ with Welwitschia, dating perhaps from the late Mezozoic. Fossil evidence dates back only to 91 mya.

10 Where We Saw Welwitschia

Greg our guide didn’t recommend the large tourism Welwitschia at the end of Welwitschia Drive on the Welwitschia Plains 50 km from Swakopmund, because it is now fenced to protect it. It is called the ‘Big Welwitschia’ and is 1.4 m tall and over 4 m (13 ft) in diameter and estimated to be 1000 to perhaps 1500 years old.

The largest Welwitschia known was from the Mesum Crater (Mesum Mountains) and was 2.77 m (9ft 1 in) tall and 8.7 m in diameter and may be 2000 years old.

Photo by Thomas Schoch, WikiCommons, The One We Missed, The Big Welwitschia, Welwitschia Plains

Photo by Thomas Schoch, WikiCommons, The One We Missed, The Big Welwitschia, Welwitschia Plains

Greg thought we’d more enjoy hunting specimens in the open desert near Swakopmund and we did.

We walked off the road into the Namib Desert and found several Welwitschia not far in as shown in our photographs.

11 Another Weird Thing —Niche Construction

Most desert plants have small pointed leaves. Although, there are many adaptations. However. Welwitschia’s leaves are huge and flat. Why?

The answer may be niche construction. Niche construction is a process by which an organism modifies its local environment for its own or another species benefit — think of beavers, bird’s nests or earthworms in soil.

The idea has been around for some time, but has been resurrected in the last ten years and is fiercely contested amongst evolutionary biologists.

Nevertheless, Welwitschia, by having broad, complexly twisted or contorted leaves close to the ground that provide shade and perhaps humidity, fits the definition. Niche construction is worth thinking about. The environment modified by the leaves may benefit the plant and other organisms.

iPhoto Denise, Welwitschia Bugs Copulating

iPhoto Denise, Welwitschia Bugs Copulating

12 Welwitschia Beetles

Because there are two sexes, Welwitschia plants require pollination. It may be by a beetle as originally postulated, but Ernst van Jaarsveld, a Welwitschia expert from SANBI, thinks because of the distance between plants that pollination is more likely by a wasp, which he has observed on male cones in habitat.

Originally it was thought that the Welwitschia beetles were useful to the plant in some way (e.g. pollination) and that the relationship might be beneficial symbiosis. However, the beetle is actually not a beetle, but a true bug Probergrothius angolensis. It is in doubt whether they actually serve a role in pollination or only drink the Welwitschia sap.

13 Growing Welwitschia

Welwitschia can be grown artificially from seed, by amateur enthusiasts.

It has been grown successfully at Kirstenbosch in South Africa, by SANBI (the South African National Biodiversity Institute) and grown elsewhere in public institutions. A Welwitschia House was custom-built in 1985 in the Collections Nursery at Kirstenbosch. A new Welwitschia House was opened to the public in 2013.

iPhoto Denise, Welwitschia, Unreleased Seeds on a Disintegrated Cone

iPhoto Denise, Welwitschia, Unreleased Seeds on a Disintegrated Cone

Eating Welwitschia

Oryx, black rhino and zebra eat Welwitschia particularly during drought in areas of the Namib desert that they can tolerate.

In, the past Herero people ate Welwitschia and called it onyanga, which means onion of the desert. The core, especially of the female plant, was said to be very tasty either raw or baked in hot ashes.

14 Conservation Status

Welwitschia has not been assessed by the IUCN Red List. It is still common in its habitat and shows variability, which is a sign that it is far from extinction. Though neither endangered nor rare, Welwitschia are now protected by law.

15 Comment

It was an absolute pleasure to visit Welwitschia mirabilis in the wild in its natural habitat. It has also been rewarding for me to learn more about Welwitschia. Its existence perhaps inspires one with hope.

Desert Bush Hiding Place, Welwitschia Country

Desert Bush Hiding Place, Welwitschia Country

Key Words: Welwitschia, Red-billed Quelea, Welwitschia mirabilis, Namib-Naukluft National Park, Atlantic Ocean, Great Escarpment, Namibia, Angola, Walvis Bay, Swakopmund, SANBI, South African National Biodiversity Institute, living fossil, Kirstenbosch, South Africa, taproot, stem, sandy soil, leaves, woody concave disc, thick, leathery, broad, strap-shaped leaves, ribbon-like structures, twisted, contorted, ground surface, basal meristem, Namib Desert, driest desert, Atacama Desert, fog, rainfall, gymnosperm, cones, male cone, female cone, Dr Friederich Welwitsch, Dr Joseph Dalton Hooker, fossil evidence, South America, Gondwana, Wollemi Pine, Mezozoic, Welwitschia Drive, Welwitschia Plains, Big Welwitschia, Mesum Mountains, niche construction, Welwitschia beetle, true bug, Probergrothius angolensis, oryx, black rhino, zebra, Herero, onyanga

Further Information

Photos

All photos (except Thomas Schoch) were taken on 1 October, 2023.

Reference

I have not referenced my sources directly, but I used the following sites to learn about Welwitschia and construct the article. They are all worth reading. I also found the video interesting. Some facts vary from article to article. I’ve tried to find a logical middle ground.

This Welwitschia Looks Dead, probably common

This Welwitschia Looks Dead, probably common

Wikipedia on Welwitschia

Britannica on Welwitschia or Tumboa.

SANBI (the South African National Biodiversity Institute). I found SANBI’s article on Welwitschia very useful. Unfortunately, the article only works with the outmoded http: setting (http://pza.sanbi.org/welwitschia-mirabilis). I’ve had some positive communication with the  Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden of SANBI though I’m not sure whether the old article will be resurrected. Their current Welwitschia House site is also informative.

Biology Discussion has a good article or study notes on Welwitschia.

Kew on Welwitschia (Also click on scientific profile)

Kruger Park has a good photograph and summary of Welwitschia. Even though they are not found in the Kruger National Park.

Oliver Halsey’s video on Welwitschia is a segment (5 min 35 sec) from a longer video by him on the Namib Desert. I found it engaging.

Another Succulent in Welwitschia Country

Another Succulent in Welwitschia Country

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Comments

  1. I didn’t know much about these interesting plants before. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Author

      I also didn’t know anything before Max Bourke told us we had to visit them!

  2. Tony thanks very much now know twice as much as before, used to present them in my lectures to incoming guides at the National Arboretum as one of the most wierd conifers!

    1. Author

      Max as the instigator of our passion to see a Welwitschia I can only say that it is nice to get praise from a real botanist. Similarly, I was surprised and pleased to receive similar encouragement from Ernst van Jaarsveld in south Africa. As a non-botanist I must have done something right. It is a real pleasure to bring interesting and hopefully accurate information to others. And, important to portray the wonders of science in this age of disinformation and ignorance.

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