The oddest plant in the world

Hyperbole? I think not. Just look at it:

Welwitschia mirabilis

Welwitschia mirabilis, as the name implies, is a bit of a miraculous thing. It grows in a desert, but it is not a succulent. It has a mass of leaves sticking out of the ground, but there are actually only two leaves that it retains its entire life. It is considered a tree, yet it hardly grows higher than the typical person’s waist.

This species occurs in a restricted strip along Namibia’s coast approximately 100km by 1000km. It is a denizen of the Namib desert, but would soon die without the regular mist from the ocean found in this region. It is also a loner: there is only one species of Welwitschia and only one genus in its family. It forms part of the gymnosperms: seed-bearing, but flowerless (like pines). Although its reproductive organs can be mistaken for flowers (there is some evidence that Welwitschia could represent some intermediate form of reproductive organ between gymnosperms and the flowering plants), they are actually cones (called strobilli). For more information on its ecology and biology, visit PlantzAfrica.

I have tried to grow this plant from seed before and was successful in keeping the seedling alive for about 8 months. Unfortunately, two seedlings were crushed by my cat who believed he was fully justified in picking a pot baking in the sun as his late afternoon nap spot. The last seedling succumbed to my erratic watering regime. 66% not my fault, in other words – not bad for a first attempt.

I decided to try them again and – success!

Welwitschia cotyledons #2

Can’t see it? It’s the thin red-brown ribbon coming from the soil. You don’t have to feel bad about missing it – this photo was heavily cropped so that the tiny thing does not disappear from sight.

I sowed 12 seeds on 2 August 2015 in large terracotta pots using the following mix:

  • 2 parts germination mix
  • 1 part vermiculite
  • 1 part washed river sand

I placed a generous amount of crocking at the bottom of the pot to help drain excess water and keep the mix from slowly leaching out the drainage hole.
Welwitschia mix

It’s a nice loose mix that will retain moisture, but also drain effectively. The biggest problem with Welwitschia is that the plant needs water (it is not a succulent), but it easily succumbs to fungus attacks (like damping off). So I hoped that this mix would help achieve both ends.

Welwitschia sown

Before I sowed the seeds, I soaked the mix thoroughly. The seeds were covered in a thin layer (maybe 5mm) of the same soil mix as above. I covered the seeds with a layer of the same mix. After a light watering, I wrote the tag (people always forget to write tags immediately – don’t), covered the pots with plastic kitchen wrap and tied it shut with a lenght of string. I placed the pots in a nice sunny spot. Welwitschia needs high soil temperature to germinate but must never dry out. Quite a tall order. The plastic wrap keeps the moisture in and frees me from having to check the pot regularly to ensure that the mix has not dried out.

Welwitschia tag

About ten days after sowing, I became very curious and decided to dig up on of the seeds to see if anything had happened. I was pleasantly surprised to find the seed stuck – it had obvious started growing is massive tap root. With wanton abandon I dug deeper and extricated the whole seedling with the radicle growing below. The juvenile root measured 3cm!

Welwitschia juvenile root

I carefully replaced the seedling and covered again. Yesterday I finally couldn’t take it longer and checked again. There were two seedlings emerging in one of the pots (today the count is up to 3!). Below you can see the cotyledons of the seedling – the two real leaves will only emerge in a few weeks’ time.

Welwitschia cotyledons #1

I will have to start watering them with a fungicide soon to remove any possibility of damping off and I’ll have to find more suitable pots. The tap root can grow immensely long and the plant itself becomes quite large. A 30cm high pot simply will not do. I will try to find mid-sized concrete pipes, like the type they use in sewage lines. If I can block off one end, I could fashion a nice tall pot for them.

More pics to follow when they look more like plants.

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It begins…!

I have finally signed all the contracts, crossed my t’s, re-dotted several i’s and probably signed away most of my possessions. I don’t care. I have now done everything needed to buy the property and am now waiting for the attorneys to lodge the sale and transfer the property. It has been exhausting.

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In the mean time I can and have started work on building the container cabin. We have started digging the trenches for my water supply and have placed the concrete pier molds as you can see in the photos above and below. Sand, stone and cement will be delivered next week so we can finish the four piers next weekend.

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I inspected the shipping containers this week and am now super excited. I’m actually quite giddy: after what feels like years of planning, I can finally have a container delivered so I can start work. In a few months one of those Evergreens below will be my home.

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I spent the day with my dad and brother planning the details of what’s going to happen in the next few weeks and ironing out some of the questions I still had around the construction. We settled on how to do the internal walling, the insulation, the electrical ducting, the water tank and pipes’ positioning and the roof structure. We also made final decisions about the size of the solar system – off-grid here I come.

Hopefully I will have an update on the construction with tons of photographs in the next week.