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The World’s Strangest Plant

Welwitschia mirabilis in the wild.

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

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.

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

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

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.
    Maria Galletti

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