Almost twenty years ago, on a long road trip through Namibia, we took a 400 km afternoon drive out into the desert from Swakopmund with the express idea of seeing the largest Welwitschia growing in the area and the sunset glow on the awe-inspiring Spitzkoppe. My dad, who was with us, was astounded that we should drive so far to see “a funny old plant and a big heap of rocks.” I wonder what his reaction would have been to the ceremony surrounding the ‘funny old plant’ that took place at Kirstenbosch on Friday 19 July when the Welwitschia section of the Conservatory was opened and a beautifully illustrated book on these ancient and fascinating plants was launched.
Guest speaker at the prestigious event was Prof Brian Huntley, retired CEO of SANBI and author of Kirstenbosch: the most beautiful garden in Africa, launched at Kirstenbosch earlier this year. He gave a fascinating account of the discovery of this strange and ancient plant from Namibia and Angola and its conservation at Kirstenbosch many years later.
Austrian botanist, Friedrich Welwitsch, discovered the first plant in Angola in 1859. He “could do nothing but kneel down and gaze at it, half in fear lest a touch should prove it a figment of the imagination.” Welwitsch collected 8 000 plant specimens between the years 1853 and 1861, representing 80% of the species of Angola, 1000 of which were new to science and 300 of which now carry his name. A few months later Thomas Baines explorer, naturalist and artist, found Welwitschia in Damaraland. Director of Kew Gardens at the time, Joseph Hooker, was greatly excited by these discoveries, as was the founder and first curator of Kirstenbosch, Prof Harold Pearson, many years later.
Remarked Prof Huntley, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Welwitsch thought the welwitschia the most beautiful plant ever found, while Hooker thought it the ugliest plant ever to have entered the UK.” Charles Darwin regarded it as the plant version of the platypus.”
The Welwitschia is “equipped only with what it needs for survival”: a taproot, two leaves, stem base and reproductive organs, produced on separate plants. It is regarded as a dwarf tree or shrub, the larger plants being two or three plants growing together. Its range follows the fog belt of the Namib Desert, its horizontal leaves trapping the moisture and feeding it to the soil beneath the plant.
According to the Kew Gardens website, the Welwitschia is rated as Near Threatened, because of “the level of fungal infection of female cones and seeds, the infection of which severely reduces seed viability.” The plants are also threatened by destruction by off-road vehicles, the collection of wild plants and through grazing by buck, zebra and rhino. It is said to have diuretic properties, but I cannot imagine that many people have chewed on its leaves, which also provide a shelter for snakes, birds and lizards!
The authors of ‘Uncrowned Monarch of the Namib – Welwitschia mirabilis’ launched at the event , horticulturist Dr Ernst van Jaarsveld and environmentalist Uschi Pond, gave humorous and inspiring insights into the production of their book, a journey according to Uschi, “of agony and ecstasy.” After present curator of Kirstenbosch, Phillip le Roux, had cut the ribbon to the Welwitschia corner of the Conservatory, the authors were kept busy signing copies of their book in the Old Mutual Exhibition Hall where the original paintings, etchings, sketches etc of the 32 artists whose works appear in the book were on exhibition. Amongst the works was a metal sculpture by local sculptor and jeweller, Nic Bladen of Clovelly.
Kirstenbosch is celebrating its centenary this year and has had record attendances over the past 4 months.
Viv von der Heyden