The World’s Longest Leaves – Welwitschia

Welwitschia is a genus containing only one single plant – Welwitschia mirabilis. This is a most unusual plant that is endemic to the Namib desert in Namibia and Angola. It was discovered in 1859 by Australian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch who is quoted as having said “[I] could do nothing but kneel down and gaze at it, half in fear lest a touch should prove it a figment of the imagination.” It has only two leaves, one on each side of its base. These leaves continue to grow throughout the plant’s lifetime and become more frayed the older it gets, which can be anywhere from 400 to 1,500 years old! They can reach from six to twelve feet in length, sometimes longer, and the central portion can grow up to six and a half feet tall. This gives it an appearance that is slightly reminiscent of a Tangela or Tangrowth, if you’re a Pokémon fan or, as one site puts it, a “dehydrated monster octopus.” The leaves are very thick, rigid, and leathery to lock in the little moisture the plant is able to get in its arid habitat.

Yes, that’s just two leaves!

Welwitschia plants are dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female plants. Both sexes of plant produce cone like structures that make sugary nectar to attract pollinators such as desert beetles and possibly hornets. After the female plant’s cones are fertilized, it takes nine months for them to reach maturity. The actual germination of a new plant depends upon the amount of water available to it. The seeds require several days of heavy rain in order for this to work. Once established, the only moisture the plant lives off of is coastal fog that drifts in, the very, very occasional rainfall, and what it can reach with its deep taproot.

Female cones

Male cones

Perhaps the funniest thing about welwitschia plants is that they are actually a type of dwarf conifer tree related to pines. They couldn’t look less like trees if they tried, but there you are. The weirdest looking tree species ever discovered.

1. Zimmerman, J. “Ancient Tree of Africa: Welwitschia (Welwitschia Mirabilis).” Ancient Tree of Africa: Welwitschia (Welwitschia Mirabilis). J. Zimmerman, 2001. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.

2. Mateos, Cristina E. “Welwitschia (Welwitschia Mirabilis) – Encyclopedia of Life.” Encyclopedia of Life. Natural History Museum, London, 21 July 2011. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. .

3. Albuquerque, Sara. “Welwitschia Mirabilis (tree Tumbo).” Welwitschia Mirabilis (tree Tumbo). Ed. Steven Bachman, Emma Tredwell, and Owlen Grace. Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <

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