Monday, February 15, 2010

The Old Man of Angola's Deserts

When the Austrian naturalist Dr Frederic Welwitsch was on a botanical expedition near Cabo Negro in Angola in 1859, he spotted a most peculiar looking plant inhabiting an elevated sandy Plateau.

The same plant was also found 500 miles south in Nambia the following year.  The locals in Angola called the plant Tumboa, but the accepted name has come to be Welwitschia mirabilis.

Angolans are very proud of the wonderful plant, and in many ways the welwitschia could be considered the national plant of Angola.   The welwitschia, being a strong, long-living plant of ancient origins is considered such a national cultural emblem that children are taught about the plant in school.
The welwitschia is a fascinating plant. By measuring the speed of growth of its giant leaves, and by carbon dating, it has been estimated that it can live for more than 500 years, with some estimates extending to 2,000 years.

An adult welwitschia consists of two leaves, a stem base and roots; that is all. Its two permanent leaves are unique in the plant kingdom in that they are the original leaves from when the plant was a seedling, and they just continue to grow and are never shed.  The sexes of the plant are separate, i.e. male plants and female plants. The male cones (as pictured at left) are salmon-coloured, small, oblong cone-like structures, and the female cones are blue-green, larger and more tapering.

The core, especially of the female plant, was used as food for people in earlier times. It is said to be very tasty either raw or baked in hot ashes, and this is how it got its Herero name, onyanga, which means onion of the desert.  (Adapted from Sonagola Universo Magazine)

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