Appearances can sometimes be deceptive: what may look like a mangled giant cabbage run over by a truck is most likely to be Namibia’s most remarkable desert survivor, the aptly named welwitschia mirabilis – “mirabilis” being Latin for marvellous or wonderful, while “Welwitsch” was the surname of the Austrian botanist who stumbled over some in the mid-nineteenth century. Featuring on Namibia’s coat of arms and nicknamed the “living fossil”, the welwitschia can live over 1500 years; its most celebrated specimen – rumoured to be one of the oldest and largest – is located inland from Swakopmund and attracts thousands of visitors annually, though the plant’s withered and dishevelled appearance can be an initial disappointment.
Welwitschias are endemic to the arid, coastal gravel plains that extend 1000km northwards from the Kuiseb River south of Walvis Bay to southern Angola. They survive on very little water and some years get none at all.
Strangely, the welwitschia – a dioecious plant with both female and male specimens – only possesses two grey-green leaves, which shrivel and shred over the years. Though the leaves can reach 2 to 4 metres in length, this extraordinary plant rarely grows higher than 1.5m.