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Welwitschia mirabilis in Namib Naukluft Park

Welwitschia mirabilis in Namib Naukluft Park

The Namib Desert is probably the oldest desert on Earth.  Because of the quirks of plate tectonics and geology, it has been the same hot arid landscape since West Gondwanaland shifted to its present position along the Tropic of Capricorn nearly 130 million years ago!  Some of the regional plants and animals of the Namib Desert have had a very long time to adapt to the baking sun and shifting sands of West Africa’s Skeleton Coast.  The sandswimming (and misnamed) golden mole is a prime example of the strange animals which live in the Namib, but an even weirder organism is the ancient monotypic plant Welwitschia mirabilis.  As the sole member of its own genus, family, and order, the plant is a bizarre evolutionary loner.  This suits the strange plant well–since some specimens exist in stupendous isolation, far from all other plants in the midst of great desolate plains.  There, single plants can live for up to two millennia or longer, in environs which would swiftly kill most other living things.  Their distinctive appearance—a huge convoluted heap of withered ancient leaves of immense length—is a sort of trademark of the Namib Desert.

The coat of arms of Namibia features one at the bottom

The coat of arms of Namibia features one at the bottom

But Welwitschia mirabilis is even stranger than its bizarre appearance and lifestyle first indicate.  It is one of the last three surviving gnetales—a division of the ancient gymnosperms (which also include conifers, cycads, and ginkgos).  Botanists are still arguing about the exact taxonomy of the gnetales, but they seem to have evolved in the Jurassic era.  As the dinosaurs came and went, as the seas rose and fell and great ice sheets carved the world and then melted, welwitschia has sat in its inhospitable corner of the globe and quietly prospered (even as all of its close relatives died away).

A young Welwitschia

A young Welwitschia

Each welwitschia has only two strap-like leaves which grow continuously over its long life.  As the desert winds rip into the plant, these leaves become shredded into different ribbons and segments, but they remain the same two leaves—growing longer and longer like some tangled Rapunzel.  The all-important taproot of the plants is just as strange—a huge shallow water collecting disk which has approximately the same radius as the length of the leaves.  Each plant has its own gender and they are pollinated by flies and desert Hemiptera (true bugs).

Welwitschia mirabilis with a dangerous African animal species

Welwitschia mirabilis with a dangerous African animal species

Oddly enough, in our world of mass extinction, welwitschia plants are doing fine.  Although collectors have gathered some, there are still plenty left in places where people do not want to go. The plants in tumultuous Angola are better protected than those in democratic, ecologically-minded Namibia (simply because Angola’s many wars have left vast, unmapped zones of landmines where people never venture).  The welwitschia’s hermit-like asceticism is a very good strategy in our hedonistic Anthropocene world.

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Sheilam Cactus Garden (South Africa)

Sheilam Cactus Garden (South Africa)

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Oh, there are all sorts of gardeners! Some people tend sugar plantations or farm huge monocultures of wheat whereas others raise variegated vegetable gardens or grow orchards full of exotic fruit. There are herb gardeners and OCD topiary gardeners. There are knot gardeners, and orchid keepers, and pharmacological botanists with climate controlled greenhouses. I am a flower gardener who also enjoys ornamental trees (a combination which makes for a beautiful but not entirely practical garden), however the strangest gardeners of all must be succulent gardeners who tend surreal writhing beds of mutated globes, obscene barrels, and fat tentacles all covered with thorns and spikes!
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The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden

The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden

Succulent plants are desert dwellers which store water in specialized internal storage structures (which, because of the nature of water, are usually thickened and fleshy). In order to fend off the animal inhabitants of deserts (who also live on thirst), these plants have evolved all sorts of defenses to protect their internal cisterns. Thus the cacti, aloes, orpines, agaves, spurges, and so forth are covered with wicked siliceous spikes or with rows of tooth-like spines or with stinging alkaline sap (or in some cases are just straight-up deadly poisonous).

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Succulent gardeners revel in this botanical arms race. The best cactus gardens look like the homes of hallucinating sorcerers. Forboding olive towers loom over chartreuse striped tendrils and purple spiky blobs. Snaky limbs bearing obscene fluorescent blooms reach out from a fat orange orange caudex above a world of yellow globes studded with black spines. Just look at these strange landscapes and revel at the combined power of nature’s asceticism and humankind’s sybaritic excess!

Debra Lee Baldwin created this garden from cuttings from friends!

Debra Lee Baldwin created this garden from cuttings from friends!

The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden (note the water tower)

The H Warren Buckner Cactus and Succulent Garden (note the water tower)

Designer: Lynn Woodbury (photo by GardenSoft)

Designer: Lynn Woodbury (photo by GardenSoft)

The San Diego Botanic Gardens

The San Diego Botanic Gardens

I have assembled a little gallery of these monstrous and beautiful dry gardens, but none of the images rival the real thing. You should jump in your car and head for a nearby botanical garden (even in cold latitudes there are usually desert greenhouses), or, if you are really feeling disenfranchised just head for Los Angeles where the craziest cactus gardens on Earth are right there on some absentee producer’s front lawn.

Lanzarote Cactus Garden

Lanzarote Cactus Garden

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Berkeley Cactus Garden

Berkeley Cactus Garden

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