An Amazing Survivor

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN NAMIBIA

HERE in the Namib Desert of southwestern Africa, the air is clear and crisp. It is a cloudless day. As the sun rises, so does the temperature. This is a world of sand dunes and windswept gravel plains. We look around in awe. What is that heap of green leaves in the distance? Looking closer, we find that we have stumbled upon one of the strangest plants in the world​—the Welwitschia mirabilis. The second word of that scientific name is Latin for “wonderful.”

In the wild, welwitschias are found only in desert regions of Angola and Namibia. They are so different from any other plant that scientists classify them as a unique family and genus made up of only one species. “Of the approximately 375,000 species of plants known to man, no other plant has succeeded in creating so much botanical interest as has Welwitschia; nor has any other plant so defied man’s habit of categorizing,” writes Chris Bornman in his book Welwitschia​—Paradox of a Parched Paradise.

Welwitschias may look like a mass of leaves surrounding a tree stump, but the plant actually has only two leaves. These become shredded into strips by the desert wind. An Afrikaans name for it, tweeblaarkanniedood, literally means “two-leaf-cannot-die.” And how apt that name is! Here daytime temperatures sometimes reach 104 degrees Fahrenheit [40°C], and the nights can be bitterly cold with no trees to break the fierce winds. While most plants depend entirely on their roots to absorb water from the soil, that is not true of the welwitschia. The Namib averages less than one inch [25 mm] of rain a year, and sometimes there is no rain for years! Under such conditions, the welwitschia continues to grow and its leaves remain green. Scientists have long wondered how this is possible. The answer seems to be that welwitschia leaves absorb the morning fog carried into the desert by regular coastal winds.

The welwitschia does not shed its leaves and grow new ones. The original pair continue growing for the entire life of the plant. On being unraveled, one leaf was found to be over 28 feet long [8.8 m]! Imagine what would happen if the ends of a welwitschia leaf did not die and wear off! “In a life span of 1500 years,” explains the scientific magazine Veld & Flora, “Welwitschia could produce a leaf as long as [740 feet] [225 m].” But can the plant really live that long? “Welwitschia plants grow slowly and often live 1,000 to 2,000 years,” confirms The World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia.

The welwitschia is indeed a wonderful survivor. What accounts for the fact that this unique plant lives so long in such harsh desert conditions? Basically, we must thank the all-wise Designer, the Creator, Jehovah God, the one who makes “vegetation for the service of mankind.”​—Psalm 104:14.