Botanix – A journal about plants and gardening

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Welwitschia mirabilis – the cultivation of a living fossil

picture Welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis) is a primeval plant growing in a small area along the coastal region of the Atlantic Ocean in Namibia and Southern Angola. Welwitschia is actually a tree, although it does not seem like it at first glance. The whole plant consists of one short trunk out of which 2 leaves grow – these look like two huge curled ribbons with frayed, barren ends. Welwitschia sometimes looks like a heap of rubbish!

picture The plant is constantly in the germination period (even during the fertile period) – which is highly unusual among plants. Welwitschia is a dioecious species and therefore two plants (male and female plant) are necessary for seed forming. Flowers are in the cones (like those of the pine tree or cycads) which are situated in the axil of the leaves.

Female cones disintegrate at maturity to release the light winged seeds, which are easily disseminated by the wind.

They belong to the ancient plant division – Gnetophyta, which are most closely related to conifers (Pinophyta). Gnetophyta has 3 very different genuses when it comes to the look: Gnetum – lianas with large simple leaves, Ephedra – shrubs and the Welwitschia itself.

The Welwitschia owes its name to the Slovene botanist Friedrich Welwitsch who discovered it in 1860. The Welwitschia is on the coat of arms of Namibia.


The Welwitschia is perfectly adapted to the extreme conditions in the desert. It is not at all dependent on rainfall and gets adequate water from the fog clouds coming from the ocean. This fact you have to keep in mind when growing Welwitschia. The main reason that the cultivation of the Welwitschia fails is when to much water is given to it resulting in the rotting of the plant. It is therefore necessary that the seeds are sown in a sandy-gravely substrate (the grains should be around 2–5 mm in diameter) because too much water retention is the biggest obstacle for growing. It is necessary to water the Welwitschia with great care – and better even, to rather gently moisten it. The seed germinates within one week. The plants can also be grown on a windowsill facing south. When growing Welwitschia, you need to be very patient as this plant grows really very slowly – it is a real dinosaur by matter of speaking. If it is given enough light and not too much water, the plant will most surely outlive you!

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Saturday 22nd May 2010 22:40 | print | Exotic plants

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