6 December 2016

The living fossil

A description of the books, letters and paintings about the remarkable Welwitschia mirabilis 'living fossil'

Reading room display at Kew Gardens

Hi, I am Tavian, the new Library Graduate Trainee for Collections.

Working on the cataloguing and classification of new library books, I have had enquiries for numerous books I have catalogued, such as the ambitiously titled 100 plants that almost changed the world by Chris Beardshaw.

However, the most interesting enquiry was for a signed copy of Ernst van Jaarsveld and Uschi Pond’s captivating book, Uncrowned Monarch of Namib.

This beautiful quarto is written in English with parallel German text and focuses on the plant Welwitschia mirabilis, a rare species endemic to the Namib Desert. The plant was first described as Tumboa strobilifera upon its discovery in 1859 but was officially named after its discoverer, the Austrian-born medical practitioner, botanist and naturalist Friedrich Martin Josef Welwitsch (1806-1872) by Joseph Dalton Hooker in 1862.


A letter from Welwitsch to Kew’s Director (and recently made available through the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation project) reveals that Welwitsch was 'honoured to have the genus named after him', and promised he would send more drawings and fresh specimens to Kew.


As a species of the order Gnetales, Welwitschia mirabilis is especially classified as a cone-bearing plant but it also has some features of a flowering seed plant, making it fall into its own family of Welwitschiaceae. Cone-bearing plants have been around since before the age of the dinosaurs, and the oldest recorded living specimen of Welwitschia mirabilis is over 1,000 years old. So it is understandable why it acquired its common name of the 'living fossil'.

Interestingly enough, this plant has only two leaves, which can each grow to between 8 and 14 metres in length and, although a ground-hugging plant, it can stand 1.5 metres high. Welwitschia mirabilis is so resilient against high desert temperatures that it is said by some to be able to live without a drop of water for five years!

However, considering that its geographical distribution follows the fog belt in coastal areas south of Angola, it is likely that Welwitschia mirabilis takes advantage of condensation on its leaves to absorb water.

Welwitschia mirabilis has separate female and male plants. The female cones can be eaten raw, baked or roasted and the cork that lines the younger plants can be used as wood for fire. So, if you are ever lost near the Damara or Herero people of Namibia, you definitely should request onyaga, also known as 'Onion of the Desert' or, in Afrikaans tweeblaar-kanniedood (two-leaved cannot-die).

On Welwitschia, a new Genus of Gnetaceae (1863) plate 7 by Walter Hood Fitch (1863) – depicts Welwitschia mirabilis female cones in colour

Over the millennia, it has evolved adaptations to dry environments, such as slow growth and leaves capable of catching dewdrops. It is so distinctive, in fact, that it is now the official emblem depicted on the Coat of Arms of the Republic of Namibia.

A range of rich botanical art represented in the 'Art & Welwitschia' section of the book has formed part of Welwitschia’s botanical legacy. The most notable illustrations are 11 plates drawn by Walter Hood Fitch (1817-1892) bound in the J. D. Hooker publication On Welwitschia, a new Genus of Gnetaceae (1863) (see above) and Thomas Baines's oil painting of two Welwitschia close to each other (1867), something that rarely happens in nature.

When I think of the long history and curious adaptations of this plant, it makes me appreciate the work that goes on in Kew's Millennium Seed Bank to ensure the valuable benefits of such plants are preserved - and makes me appreciate my role of enhancing and delivering access to information about such flora from Kew's library.

- Tavian -

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