This Plant Can Live for More Than 1,000 Years

This Welwitschia is roughly 1,500 years old. Thomas Schoch/Wikimedia Commons

The southern African nation of Namibia is dominated by the Namib Desert. One of most inhospitable sections in this remote land — Mongolia is the only country on Earth less populated than Namibia — is not as barren as it looks, though. The so-called Skeleton Coast, almost completely uninhabited, is actually rich in wildlife. Some of the plants here, such as the strange Welwitschia mirabilis, are unlike anything else on Earth.

Nature’s talent for adaptability is on full display here. The Peringuey's adder, for example, travels across the dunes sideways. This snake barely touches the sand, which is so hot that the region earned the nickname “Gates of Hell” from early European explorers. Another local reptile, the palmato gecko, licks moisture off its own oversized eyeballs, which are wetted by the dew each morning. In fact, with only 0.39 inches of rain per year, life survives almost solely on the foggy air that hangs over the Skeleton Coast.

A tree with only two leaves

Perhaps the strangest, most alien-like creature of all is a plant that appears like a clump of dead weeds.

The Welwitschia's name comes from its scientific name, Welwitschia mirabilis, though it's sometimes referred to in regional languages as n’tumbo (“blunt” in reference to its stubby stature), onyanga (onion) and, in Afrikaans, tweeblaarkanniedood (two leafs that cannot die). Perhaps its most interesting moniker is “living fossil.” This may be most apt name because a single Welwitschia can live for more than 1,000 years.

This desert dweller’s anatomy is even stranger than its appearance and propensity for a long life. In addition to roots and a short stem, each plant has only two leaves that never fall off and continuously grow though its entire life.

It gets stranger still. This is one of the few plants that actually has a gender. There are both male and female species, characterized by different cone-like seed pods and different nectar-producing extremities.

'Octopus of the desert'

One of the Welwitschia’s less obvious names is “octopus of the desert.” It has two leaves, not eight arms, but these two strands are often shredded into ribbons by the windy conditions along the Skeleton Coast. Furthermore, because the trunk is short, the leaves simply curl into a clump along the ground. This creates an appearance that's very much like an octopus lying on the sea floor.

The stem grows out instead of up, often reaching more than a meter wide. This squat shape helps the plant because it keeps the roots cool even as the ground temperature reaches extreme levels because. Furthermore, the “clumpy” leafs hold moisture in the ground directly around the stem and roots. This plant survives so well in this harsh environment because of its unkempt appearance.

A curiosity for curiosity seekers

Welwitschia plants are something of a tourist attraction. They are most often located in depressions in the sand because the little rain that falls in the area drains into these desert divots. The largest plants are near other Namibian attractions. The Messum Crater, a 10-mile-wide crater formed millions of years ago, reportedly has some of the largest living examples of Welwitschia. Smaller colonies live near the outpost of Khorixas, which is next to the Petrified Forest of trees that have turned to stone through the process of diagenesis. Namibia’s main city, Windhoek, has samples of Welwitschia in its botanic garden, and tourists will come into contact with some examples around the country’s other main town, Swakopmund.

A modest botanist

This plant is named after the man who first discovered it, Friedrich Welwitsch. He was an Austrian botanist, explorer and doctor. He actually found the first example in what is now Angola, not in Namibia. He wanted to name the plant Tumboa, the term used by Angolans, but it was named in his honor nonetheless.

Ironically, the Welwitschias growing in southernmost Angola are the least disturbed, although the reason for this is rather unfortunate. During Angola’s decades-long Civil War, the areas adjacent to the desert were heavily mined and controlled by warring factions, so the deserts themselves were left untouched except for small colonies of nomads who lived subsistence lifestyles.

Conservation and the future

The Welwitschia has a few things going for it. First of all, its lack of attractive attributes means humans have little to no reason to collect or harvest it. Second, it's obviously a survivor, and its longevity gives it centuries to distribute its seeds. According the England’s Kew Gardens, the population is healthy, but there are concerns because of a recent fungal infection. There have also been instances of plants being destroyed by the region’s growing desert adventure sports industry (which includes driving the dunes in off-road vehicles) and grazing by both wild and domestic animals. Zebras, springboks and the rare black rhino are attracted to the moisture contained in the Welwitschia’s leaves.

Kew’s Prince of Wales Conservatory is one of the gardens trying to cultivate a population of Welwitschia. The United States Botanic Garden, in Washington D.C., also has living examples of the plant. To see the best specimens of this bizarre plant, though, you'll have to travel to the Skeleton Coast.