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Conservation of Welwitschia mirabilis

 

"It is out of the question the most wonderful
plant ever brought to this country, and
one of the ugliest."

This was the response of the Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in 1863 when presented with a plant of Welwitschia mirabilis (formerly W. bainesii). This primitive member of the gymnosperms is a remarkable denizen of the coastal desert regions of Namibia and Angola. Here morning fogs provide the moisture for Welwitschia in an otherwise forbidding moonscape.

Welwitschia mirabilis plants are unusual for their large, straplike leaves that grow continuously along the ground. During its entire life, each plant produces only two leaves, which often split into many segments as a result of the leaves being whipped by the wind. Carbon-14 datings of the largest plants have shown that some individuals are over 1500 years old.

Because plants of Welwitschia form a large and deep taproot, they present challenges to those who would grow them indoors under glass. The most common method of cultivation is to pot the plant into a long upright section of ceramic drainage pipe. At the Botanic Garden of Smith College, seeds of W. mirabilis have been received from South African botanists. With luck we will bring this rare botanical "monster" of Namibia to Northampton.

For further reading, see Gillian A. Cooper-Driver, "Welwitschia mirabilis: A Dream Come True," Arnoldia, Volume 54, Number 2 (Fall), pp. 2-10, 1994.

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Last updated on Monday, May 09, 2005.