Plants of Namibia
In 1859, (or 1860, depending on your source of reference) Austrian botanist and medical doctor Friedrich Welwitsch, first noted and found a most bizarre plant species east of Swakopmund. About the same time, Thomas Baines, a well-known explorer and artist, found plants near the Swakop River. Simultaneous discovery results in conflict and confusion about the choosing of the correct botanical name, and Welwitsch was remembered as the generic name, but the species name bainesii, which is often encountered in literature, has been dropped. Welwitsch suggested it be named tumboa, a local Angolan name for the plant, but as the discovery was deemed to be really important, including any indigenous folk in its generic name was by-passed. So it was very (un)generously named after him instead, by a chap called JD Hooker! Hooker regarded it as the ugliest, but most interesting plant ever bought into Great Britain, where specimens grow comfortably today at Kew Gardens. So what is all the fuss about?
The range of the welwitschia extends from the Kuiseb River in the central Namib to south-western Angola (where Fred first saw them) and from near to the coast to the Messum Mountains to about 100km inland to Khorixas. They do not have a continuous distribution and individual plants are found in scattered communities, some isolated from others by several hundred kilometres.
Welwitschias belongs to the cone-bearing gymnosperms and are considered to be (dwarf) trees and are related to conifers, specifically pines. They live for 2,000 years or more, and specimens of average size are 500-600 years old. In its lifetime, the evergreen plant produces a single pair of leaves which grow from opposite sides of the stem, covering an area of about 1m², and grow throughout the year. Growth rates of the leaves differ between seasons, years and sites, depending mainly on the moisture available. The water required for growth is thought to come from moist soil and fog dripping on to the soil surface. Blackened by the sun and torn by the wind, the leaves are soon reduced to a tangle of strips which look like lots of individual leaves. They preferentially grow in dry washes and runoff depressions, where their long roots can find ground water.
They are a dioeceous species, meaning that male and female plants are distinct. Cone like flowers first appear at the age of 20. The female produces up to 100 flowers in a season and may release 20,000 seeds which are dispersed by the wind, whilst the male produces an abundance of pollen, but the odds against propagation are formidable. Seeds available for new plants, which in any event is only one thousandth of the quantity produced, germinate only if it rains for several days. This explains the slow rate of growth.
Large welwitschia create their won micro-habitat, harbouring many occupants in the shade beneath their leaves, including a variety of bugs and bees. The leaves themselves are eaten by rhino, zebra and even horses if they cannot find an alternative fodder. The Welwitschia is endemic to Namibia and one of the rarest plants in the world.
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