Unfairly called the ugliest plant

Welwitschia mirabilis
Welwitschia mirabilis

In the remote deserts along the Skeleton Coast in Namibia and Angola in southern Africa is found one of the world’s strangest and most bizarre plants – Welwitschia mirabilis.

The botanical name commemorates the Austrian naturalist and explorer Friedrich Welwitsch who discovered it in 1859 while working for the Portuguese government in what is now Angola.

At that time this was a very dangerous part of the world and he suffered from fever, scurvy and attacks from hostile tribes (as well as meeting David Livingstone), but after eight years in the field he managed to get his rich plant collections back home.

Many of his discoveries were previously unknown and this most amazing of them was sent to Kew Gardens in London in 1860 where the director, Sir William Hooker, immediately recognised it as something unique and completely new to science.

In 1863 it was formally described by Hooker’s son Joseph and named in honour of Welwitsch.

Its species name mirabilis means marvellous.

In fact, Welwitschia has no known close relatives except for some fossils of Cretaceous age from South America – so it is genuinely a living fossil. Charles Darwin called it ‘the platypus of the plant kingdom’.

Others have unfairly called it ‘the world’s ugliest plant’.

Its closest living relatives are the conifers such as our own Scots Pine. It is indeed technically a tree as it has a massive woody base and rootstock which grows deep into the ground.

The only source of water for these plants is moisture from dew and fog.

Above the ground it has a short stout trunk which bears only two long leathery leaves which continue growing throughout the life of the plant and can grow up to four metres long.

These leaves grow close to the stony desert soil and become frayed and tattered with the wind and sand, and are sometimes eaten by antelopes and oryx.

Many plants are over 500 years old and some are thought to be aged over 2000 years.

Like conifers the plants produce cones, male and female on different plants.

Unfortunately Welwitsch fell out with the Portuguese government and moved to England where he spent the rest of his life in London, studying the plant specimens he had collected in Africa, eventually being laid to rest in Kensal Green Cemetery.

However his name lives on honouring one of the most ancient and amazing plants on earth.

Living plants of Welwitschia are grown today in the Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh and Kew.