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Species Profile: Welwitschia

Species Profile: Welwitschia

By Kim Oldenborg (Northland College ’16)

Scanning the desert landscape here at Wereldsend there is a unique plant species that is growing amongst the grass and red round rocks. It goes by the common name of Welwitschia derived from its scientific name, Welwitschia mirabilis. It is an endemic plant to Namibia and has adapted very well to desert life. It is actually a dwarf tree that has been driven underground by the dry climate. It has a stem that can go three meters below ground looking for water with smaller roots then coming off of that. It only has two thick leathery leaves that come off its stem. It often looks as if the plant has many leaves because they split and shred as they are growing. The leaves continue to grow and die back because of animals such as the Black Rhino, Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra, Elephant, and Oryx chewing on them to retrieve its moisture. The leaves can be some of the only foliage in an area during drought years and serve as shelter for birds, reptiles, and insects.

For reproduction it has male and female cones on separate plants (see below), but pictured above is a rare find – a hermaphrodite Welwitschia. The male cones are smaller and are in clusters of three to five on a stem. The female cones are larger and only one is present per stem. Welwitschia is actually considered a living fossil of the bridging between gymnosperms (cone bearing plants) and angiosperms (flowering plants), because the female cones have style like structures with a naked ovule like a flower. As if an endemic dwarf tree and two-leaved living fossil is not enough to make this plant special there have been specimens found at the coast that are up to 2,000 years old! If plants could talk this would be first on my list to hear from.

 

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Male plant

 

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Female plant

 

 

Top photo by Kim Oldenborg
Bottom two photos by Susie Dain-Owens

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