Sunday, October 13, 2013

Little Shop of Horrors: Welwitschia.

Look at the above image. What do you see?

If you think that's washed-up seaweed, take note of how this image doesn't look like it's near the ocean. Trash off a truck? A plausible theory. Litter? Haha, no. A sign that the Great Old Ones are coming? I dunno; ask Bogleech about that one. If you said it's a Welwitschia, you either read the title or happen to be a botanist.

 Welwitschia mirabilis is a bizarre plant found on the Atlantic coast of Angola and Namibia, who has the odd plant on its coat of arms. The plant can only live in arid environments with occasional fog. It is named for the Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch, who also discovered a few other botanical oddities in his lifetime. This particular plant happens to be a living fossil, going virtually unchanged since the Mesozoic. The Welwitschia's closest relatives are, of all things, pine trees. Yeah, bring a Welwitschia over next Christmas; I'm sure it'll go over well with the relatives. (Actually, you can grow your own!)

Welwitschia are amazingly odd plants. The 'mess' of leaves is actually just two very large leaves. These are the exact same leaves that the plant had as a seedling, and have grown very large over time. They have simply been shredded with wear. These two leaves are all the plant grows during its entire, very long life. There's not much beyond these leaves, either - just a stem and roots. Suddenly the most basic of plants has become a strange thing.

How long is its life, anyways? Oh, one or two millennia. A single Welwitschia can be anywhere from 1,000-2,000 years old. We're used to trees living that long- not displaced patches of seaweed. Bear in mind that this thing is still just a stem, roots, and two leaves. Yes, it's always just two throughout thousands of years. During that time, it can also grow huge.

Disclaimer: May eat old ladies.

The relatives of Welwitschia dominated Late Paleozoic and Mesozoic fauna. The tattered dregs in the sand are all that remains of this unique genus. It can still live for thousands of years. If nothing else, Welwitschia proves one thing: sometimes the simplest answer is the best.

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