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The most wonderful plant ... and one of the ugliest.
April 13, 2010 7:21 PM   Subscribe

Welwitschia mirabilis lies around the Namibian coastal desert like misshapen heaps of horticultural debris, either singly or in untidy clumps. Each plant has two huge leaves lolling out from its gaping trunk that collect moisture from the sea fogs. These plants would win no awards for beauty - the Regius Keeper of Kew Gardens described them as "one of the ugliest" plants brought to England, and it's hard to disagree with the Daily Mail's description of it as "hideous ... leprous ... snaking and sinister". None the less, it is a tourist attraction in its own right and supports the Namibian coat of arms where it symbolises fortitude and tenacity. If you're still hanging out for some Welwitschian goodness, here's a video and lots more photos on Wikimedia Commons. You can even try growing one yourself!
posted by Joe in Australia (31 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh wow... Georgia O'Keefe would've been all over this.
posted by indubitable at 7:33 PM on April 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


A remarkable FPP...
posted by HuronBob at 7:33 PM on April 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


it really does look like the plant equivalent of a tumor. How does it manage to reproduce?
posted by leotrotsky at 7:37 PM on April 13, 2010


From one of my favorite sites, conifers.org: Some authors assign the family to a monotypic order, Welwitschiales. Apparently with two subspecies, also!
They are uniquely freaky.
posted by Red Loop at 7:42 PM on April 13, 2010


Looks like a SimEarth glitch.
posted by griphus at 7:42 PM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


It also represents one of the only three surviving genera of gnetophytes, alongside melinjo and ephedra.

Yes, that ephedra.
posted by gimonca at 7:42 PM on April 13, 2010


"They look like huge seed pods!"
posted by The Whelk at 7:44 PM on April 13, 2010


2000 years?
posted by sfts2 at 8:00 PM on April 13, 2010


Whatever is in any way beautiful hath its source of beauty in itself, and is complete in itself; praise forms no part of it. So it is none the worse nor the better for being praised.

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121 AD - 180 AD), Meditations

Face it: this is one beautiful plant. How can a plant be ugly? (Although, like the fruit of the female ginkgo tree and the durian fruit (IMO), some plants offend our sense of smell.)

But visually? I have never seen an ugly plant. Cross-Kingdom aesthetic standards are way stupider than your average anthropomorphic prejudices.
posted by kozad at 8:26 PM on April 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


Letrotsky - They are gymnosperms that reproduce similarly to pine trees (wikipedia article lined in mirabilis). Not that it wouldn't take some serious beer goggles for successful copulation to occur...
posted by msbutah at 8:27 PM on April 13, 2010


I've got to say - I love whole world, boomdeyada, and so forth - but they just look wrong to me. This lady describes them as "giant spiders creeping over the hills" and I only disagree with the "hills" bit: they look like giant creeping spiders on flat ground, too. Like giant spiders crossed with two-legged octopi. The article's well worth reading if you've seen the others - it describes a (successful) hunt for Weltwitchiae with more than two leaves.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:34 PM on April 13, 2010


Yay, W. mirabilis! We have one in our departmental greenhouse. It's just as Lovecraftian-looking in person. (In other words, it's delightful.)

I have never, in my adult life, been fonder of a plant than I am of that one.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 9:36 PM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


How does it manage to reproduce?

I'll tell you what I know...we set down on LV426, one of our crew members was brought back on board with something attached to his face...some kind of parasite. We tried to get it off, it wouldn't come off...later, it seemed to come off by itself and die...
posted by sexyrobot at 9:36 PM on April 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


From the Wiki link:The plants living in Angola are better protected than the plants in Namibia, owing to the relatively high concentration of landmines in Angola, which keep collectors away.

Now that's conservation with an attitude.
posted by jenkinsEar at 9:53 PM on April 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


Yeah okay, plant, Namibia, cool, desert, strange, wait....WHAT? Suddenly here's Pam, for scale. Holy HP Lovecraft, they can get huge.

Now this, this is what I come to metafilter for. Awesome post.
posted by tula at 9:59 PM on April 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


How does it manage to reproduce?

I believe it is a combination of blindfolds and roofies.
posted by Splunge at 11:12 PM on April 13, 2010


The FX guys behind The Ruins must be cursing themselves for going with the pumpkin weed instead of something like this.
posted by Iosephus at 11:31 PM on April 13, 2010


Oh wow... Georgia O'Keefe would've been all over this.

Perhaps it's no coincidence then that Namibia is also home to the Khoisan group formerly and now apparently pejoratively known as the Hottentots, bearers of the Hottentot Apron, innocent inspiration of some of the most repellent and disgraceful episodes in the history of European Anthropology.

The article I linked mentions genetic causes, but everything I've seen previously calls it the result of a cultural practice, now conceivably to me, possibly provoked by identification with this amazing plant!

Be interesting to know literal translations of Khoikhoi names for Welwitschia.
posted by jamjam at 11:47 PM on April 13, 2010


How does it manage to reproduce?
From the Wikipedia page: "the transfer of the pollen from the male to the female strobili, is carried out by insects that are attracted by "nectar" produced on both male and female strobili."

A living fossil. A truly wondrous plant.
posted by tellurian at 12:04 AM on April 14, 2010


i first learned of this plant from another post on metafilter from a couple years ago. i spent several hours - somewhat agog and delighted - tracking down as much info as i could find about it, online. it is a really wonderful plant.
posted by lapolla at 12:22 AM on April 14, 2010


Great post, loved it.
posted by Wolof at 12:22 AM on April 14, 2010


oh, and - i think Odontopus sexpunctatus is my new favorite imaginary band name.
posted by lapolla at 12:36 AM on April 14, 2010


Be interesting to know literal translations of Khoikhoi names for Welwitschia.

"Welwitsch recommended that it be named Tumboa, its native Angolan name"
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.
posted by tellurian at 12:39 AM on April 14, 2010


The very first thing that hit me when I saw Figure A: hey cool, looks sorta like fallopian tubes.
posted by bwg at 3:00 AM on April 14, 2010


Just wait until someone figures out it heals cancer, AIDS and brings peace to the middle east. Or that you can smoke it. Whichever comes first.
posted by slater at 6:48 AM on April 14, 2010


I'm fairly sure if you get hit by one of these you end up blind, paralyzed, confused, enraged, and poisoned. Or maybe that's just after they're full-grown...
posted by FatherDagon at 9:22 AM on April 14, 2010


Hey, I've gotten to see one of these up close. They're completely amazing, especially because their in the middle of a true no mans land, the Namib desert, the second driest in the world. The also support a cool ecosystem of brightly colored bugs on their leaves.
posted by Suparnova at 12:18 PM on April 14, 2010


How can a plant be ugly? ... Cross-Kingdom aesthetic standards are way stupider than your average anthropomorphic prejudices.

Are you saying that all plants are equally beautiful, then? That you do not perceive any plant as being more beautiful than any other? If that's your view, then you're entitled to it as much as beauty is subjective anyway, but I would submit that your view is not representative of most persons'.

OTOH, if you think all plants are beautiful, but would agree that some are more beautiful than others, it seems to me not too difficult to imagine that the plants which you find less beautiful might be viewed by others as downright ugly. Not to mention that more beautiful plants vs. less beautiful plants is as much one of those "cross-kingdom aesthetic standards" as beautiful plants vs. ugly plants.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:53 PM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, I think they're purdy.


(great post)
posted by bumpkin at 2:16 PM on April 14, 2010


Plus I just like saying "Welwitschia..."
posted by sneebler at 8:56 PM on April 14, 2010


From Red Loop's conifers.org link: a 3-leaved specimen. I wonder if that is lucky, like a 4 leaf clover.

Fascinating stuff, thanks for posting it!
posted by TedW at 11:12 AM on April 15, 2010


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