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WELWITSCHIA PLANTS NAMIBIA. Welwitschia mirabilis plants are unique to the Namib Desert Coastal Region. If you plan to tour the northern regions of Namibia, you will see Welwitschia plants in Damara-land and at the Petrified Forest. However, these are...

 

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Welwitschia mirabilis Plants

Unique to the Namib Desert Coastal Region. Only found north of the Kuiseb River.

 

 

If you plan to tour the northern regions of Namibia, you will see Welwitschia plants in Damara-land and at the Petrified Forest. However, these are small samples of this unusual plant when compared to those you can see on the 'Welwitschia Plains" some 70km inland from Swakopmund.

 

Welwitschia mirabilis:

Many of the world's botanical gardens display examples of Welwitschia plants. However, only when viewed in their' natural environment can any desert plant be fully appreciated. The South Namib Desert is a sand sea of dunes that runs 700km from the Orange River to the Kuiseb River. Apart from the 4km wide belt of Coastal Dunes between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, The Namib north of the Kuiseb River  is a Gravel Plains Desert. The plant is only found naturally in the Northern coastal belt of the Namib Desert and the largest specimens are found about 70km inland from Swakopmund.

 

Permit Required: The tour route lays within the Northern Namib Naukluft Park and a permit is required for driving on all roads except the C14, C28, D1982 and D1998. Permits are obtainable for a nominal fee at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism Offices in Swakopmund. and you will be supplied with a map indicating points of interest and overnight desert camping sites.   Entry Fees Payable

 

Getting There: Drive the B2 road from Swakopmund towards Windhoek. After 0.5km you will see the 'Martin Luther' Steam Engine on your right hand side. At 1.2km you will see the road sign 'Namib Park C28 Khomas Hochland'. The gravel roads are suitable for saloon cars. There are no fuel stations or shops on the route, so be prepared and take some refreshments and drinks. Turn onto the C28 gravel road. See below map.

 

Juvenile Welwitschia showing they have only two leaves

Only 2 leaves

A route map 4U

Welwitshia Route Map

Along the trail you will see examples of male and female plants surrounded by neat rock circles and marked for easy identification.

 

The local natives called the plant n'tumbo, and in times of hardship it could be used as a food source. The desert elephant, Oryx, rhinoceros, springbok and zebra have been know to eat it. A variety of insects also use the plant for sustenance and shelter under it's leaves.

General Location of the Welwitschia Plains

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Welwitschia Plants

 

 

 

Welwitschia mirabilis plant

Welwitschia plant

 

The 'Discoverers' : The Welwitschia plant is named after the Austrian botanist Dr. Friedrich Welwitsch (1806-1872) who first 'discovered' the plant near Mocamedes in South-West Angola in 1860 while working for the Portuguese Government. On completion of his contract he took up residence in London, England.

 

The Africa explorer painter Thomas Baines trekked through Namibia in 1861 and made sketches of the plant which were later

sent to London. The plant was first named Tumboa bainesi. Baines wrote of his first sighting of the plant being in one of the sandy ravines running into the Swakop River.

 

"In its sandy bed we came upon a bulbous plant with four leaves, fourteen or sixteen inches wide, and, when perfect, nine or ten feet long, lying in a cross upon the ground. The ends were withered and curled up, and in the centre was an assemblage of small stems six inches long, each bearing on smaller stems from three to five greenish-crimson substances, of an elongated ova three inches long and three quarters of an inch thick, and marked with scales like a fur cone. On this plant I found a number of red, or red and yellow field bugs, and captured some of them for preservation, beside making an outline of the plant itself, intending to colour it from some of the specimens we expected to see to-morrow."

 

The priority of Dr. Welwitsch was eventually recognized and the plant given the name Welwitschia mirabilis.

 

The Welwitschia mirabilis is a unique and protected plant (CITES Appendix ll): that still invites a considerable amount of research. The plant only grows two leaves during its entire lifetime. The bunches of leaves seen on older plants are actually splits of the original leaf pair. Apart from Cacti and succulents most desert plants are xeromorphic having spiny leaves with a small surface area. However the Welwitschia has long, wide and relatively thin leaves, similar to plants found in climates that experience regular rains. The leaves have up to 22,000 stomata (small pores) per sq cm combined on both upper and lower leaf surface which are used for the exchange of gases in the photosynthesis. In contrast to other leafed plants these stomata remain opened during foggy or wet conditions and absorb  moisture. When hot conditions are being experienced these stomata close to reduce the evaporation of plant fluids. The root system reaches depths of 2 to 3 meters and can grow laterally as much as 30 meters across.

 

Water Intake: Rainfall in the Namib is limited and ranges from 20mm in the coastal belt to 120mm further inland, per year. Moisture from the early morning fogs produced by the cold Benguela (sea) Current for about 300 days per year add about another 50mm of moisture per year.

 

Temperatures experienced in the Namib can fall to near freezing point on a cold winters night. Daytime temperatures of the gravel surface can reach 70 Celsius, and the Welwitschia leaf ends spilt and become burnt.

 

Welwitschia Bug nymph

Bug Nymph

male plat stamens

Male Stamens

Female Cones secrete a honey like liquid

Female cones

The central 'trunk' section of a Welwitschia Plant

The "trunk"

The ends of the leaves become burned by the hot sand (70c+)

Burnt leaf ends

 

Reproduction - Some Facts:  The Welwitschia is a 'gymnosperm' meaning naked seed and being the name for any vascular plant not having flowers. e.g. Cycad, Ginkgo, Conifers, Yew. Gymnosperms include the most ancient of the living seed plants and appear to have descended from the early fern-like plants dating from the Devonian Period (408.5 to 365.5 million years ago). The flowering plants that we are familiar with are Angiosperms, and they first appeared in the mid-Jurassic Period, about 175 million years ago. The seeds of gymnosperms are not enclosed within the ovule as with flowering plants.

The Male reproductive system comprises of six stamens each having an anther and a pistil. The stamens reach 'maturity' between during September and October when they secrete an insect attractant.

Pollination: The latest research by the Gobabeb Training and Research Centre is of the considered opinion that owing to the large size, weight and 'stickiness' of the

Welwitschia pollen it is unlikely that the desert winds play any roll in the pollination process and that a variety of wasps and other flying insects are responsible for carrying 'the load' from one plant to the other.

The Female is unlike any other known plant insomuch that fertilization occurs within the pollen tube and not the embryo-sac.

The seeds develop on the surface of the scale like leaves of the female cones. A female plant can produce between 10,000 to 20,000 seeds having winged segments which are used for dispersion by the winds. In consideration of the environment, quantities of this magnitude would be required for the species to survive, let alone flourish. Recent studies estimate that 0.1% of seeds dispersed will take root.

 

The Welwitschia Bug: There's a good chance that you will see these bugs busying themselves on and around the cones of the female plants. They are not a beetle, but a bug, and have the  rather exotic name - Odontopus sexpunctatis. The larger ones in the upper left hand photograph are adults, while the smaller red coloured bugs are still in the nymph stage. These are known as Pyrrhocorid bugs and feed by sucking the sap of the Welwitschia Plant. Contrary to popular belief these bugs play no part in the pollination of the plant.

 

Other Life Forms: The Welwitschia having wide and long leaves offers a welcoming refuge for many desert dwellers. Birds, chameleons, lizards, scorpions, snakes along with a variety of small mammals and insects can be found under the leaves of a larger plants, so take care, enjoy the experience and don't touch.  

 

 

Adult and nymph Welwitschia Bugs

Adult bugs with nymphs

The seemingly hostile Welwitschia Planis

The Welwitschia Plains

The Big Welwtischia

The Big Welwitschia

 

The Big Welwitschia stands approximately 1,4 meters tall and its' leaves spread to a diameter of about 5meters. Exact aging of the plant is difficult. The detail board at the site gives the age as being in excess of 1500 years old. However recent studies show that the plant could be twice as old. The  longevity of the plants indicates an unusual resistance to disease. However, you may find some that have recently become 'infected' by a fungus growth.

 

  Tour Part 1 - Moon-Landscape   

Acknowledgements and further reading: GV1, P1, P2, T4, T5


The Moon-Landscape and Welwitschia mirabilis Plants lay within a National Park area, so there are entrance fees payable to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.  Entry Fees Payable


Of Interest: The keeper of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, London in 1863 when first viewing a Welwitschia mirabilis commented, "It is out of the question the most wonderful plant ever brought into this country, and one of the ugliest".

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