Welwitschia mirabilis (2011)

PhotoBy Ralph Olliges (March 2011)

Welwitschia mirabilis, named after Friedrich Welwitschia, who discovered it in 1895, is a plant native to Namibia and Angola. It seems to be a remnant of the Jurassic Period and only grows along a narrow strip in the Namib Desert, about 1,000 kilometers in length along the coastline.

The plants grow no further than 100 to 150 kilometers from the coast. This coincides with the fog belt. Due to the large, drooping leaves of welwitschia plants, the fog that develops overnight is an ideal way for the plants to collect water from the condensation in order to water their own roots.

Welwitschia plants have two leaves, a stem base and roots. The leaves are permanent; they never fall and the plants never grow any more. The leaves get torn over the years into strips, giving them the appearance of more than two leaves. The stem, woody and obconical, can grow up to 50 centimeters in height. The largest plant ever recorded, however, grew to 1.8 meters and is situated in the Messum Mountains.

These plants, on average, live 500 to 600 years old, with an estimated lifespan of up to 1,500 years. The largest plants may even be over 2,000 years old. These welwitschias were carbon dated to establish a rough estimate of their ages. It is also possible to loosely determine age from the concentric rings formed by the base, as with larger trees.

Contrary to what one might think, welwitschias are relatively easy to grow. There are three main factors to keep in mind: the taproot, dependence on extra moisture and type of soil used. It is best to use a sandy soil mixture, water the plants often and give supplementary feedings. It is also recommended to use sterilized soil.

Seeds should be sown during spring or summer, when it’s warmest. They grow best in a large pot 30 cm or more deep, or in an open bed. If using a container, make sure to use gravel or rocks at the bottom for good drainage.

A good example of a soil mix is two parts sand, one part loam, one part compost with bonemeal, mixed and sterilized. Make sure to moisten the soil before sowing. Sow two to three seeds per container. If needed, transplant a welwitschia in the case that more than one of the seeds grow, or just let them form into a single plant.

Welwitschias grow best if watered well during the first year, and it is recommended to add a mild fungicide, as they are very prone to fungus. Keep the soil moist until germination. The atmosphere should be well aerated, warm and preferably have filtered sunlight. Greenhouses, windowsills, verandas or outdoor areas with less than 50 centimeters of rainfall work best.

The plants germinate in as little as seven days, but can take up to a few months. Two cotyledons, pink in color, will appear and begin to turn green. If the welwitschia is in a shallow tray, move it immediately when the cotyledons appear, but be sure to not damage the root tip while transplanting, or it will die.

Continue to water well. Too much water is better than too little. It is best to water welwitschias most while the temperature is between 85 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit, during the summer. Reduce the amount of water during winter, and increase again in spring. Welwitschias respond well to being fed and “green up.”

Since it is rare, I hope that I can keep my welwitschia alive to show in the summer of 2012, as I just missed the deadline for the summer 2011 show. That is an awesome responsibility! I just hope I have learned enough from club members to be able to live up to it.