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The World’s Strangest Plant

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Welwitschia mirabilis in the wild.

The strangest plant in the world is probably the welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis) found in Africa’s Namib Desert.

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This young welwitschia grown in a greenhouse clearly shows the woody crown and the two long leaves typical of the species.

It is a gymnosperm, that is, it is related to conifers, and grows from a short, thick trunk called a crown that never branches and barely shows above the ground. It basically looks like a fire-scorched stump. All the crown produces throughout its life are two broad thick leaves that grow continuously from their base and that can reach 6 to 12 feet (2-4 meters) long.

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This confused mass of vegetation is actually made up of one plant and just two torn leaves.

As the leaves grow longer, they are torn into strips by the wind, and dry up and die at their tip. Thus the leaf grows continuously but very slowly at one end and dies back continuously at the other. The age of some welwitschias is estimated to be about 2000 years, which means the leaves too are just also old, making them the oldest living leaves in the world. The botanical epithet, mirabilis, reflects this surprising and unique growth system: it means “miracle”.

This plant is one of kind. In fact, literally so, because the genus Welwitschia contains only this one species… and it is also the only surviving species in its own family, the Welwitschiaceae. It is considered a living fossil because the species has existed for at least 105 million years.

If ever plant life is found on Mars, I am convinced it will look a lot like a welwitschia!20160821C

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

2 comments on “The World’s Strangest Plant

  1. Hello Larry,
    I have seen the Welwitschia first hand while I was volunteering for the Desert Elephant in Namibia. Quite an impressive plant. I have lovely photos of it.
    Cheers,
    Maria Galletti

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