Thursday, April 4, 2013

The plant Welwitschia mirabilis discovered by and named after the Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch

The xerophyte Welwitschia mirabilis has always been known to the local people of  the Namib desert in Africa. This plant is endemic to a narrow strip of that desert range, where it was (re)discovered for modern science in 1859 by the Austrian explorer and botanist Friedrich Martin Josef Welwitsch (1806-1872). Eventually the plant genus was named in his honor. The Latin species name mirabilis means extraordinary, marvellous or wonderful [1-4].

Welwitschia mirabilis is the only species of the genus Welwitschia and therefore simply referred to as Welwitschia. This distinct species is most closely related to cone-bearing needle trees (pines, spruces, firs and larches). Each plant has only two permanent strap-shaped leaves. Welwitschia is well adopted to grow under extremely arid conditions, but plants are frequently exposed to fog that moves into the desert from the Atlantic Ocean with the cold Benguela Current upwelling off the coast of Namibia and Angola.

Friedrich Welwitsch spent seven years in Angola, where he collected a large number of plant and insect species, many of them new to science. Welwitsch himself called his marvellous discovery Tumboa, which was later renamed to Welwitschia by Joseph Dalton Hooker [3]. Hence the complete plant identifier: Welwitschia mirabilis, Hooker, f. The primatologist Jane Goodall, known for her expertise on chimpanzees and less known for her love of trees, recently wrote about Welwitsch's encounter with his Tumboa [4]:
... it is said that he fell to his knees and stared and stared, in silence. He sent a specimen to Sir Joseph Hooker, at Kew botanical gardens in London—and Sir Joesph for several months became obsessed with it, devoting hours at a time to studying, writing about and lecturing about the botanical oddity. It is, indeed, one of the most amazing plants on earth, a living fossil, a relict of the cone-bearing plants that dominated the world during the Jurassic period.
Keywords: botany, natural history, southern Angola, Namibia; living fossil, nomenclature, scientific classification: Plantae > Gnetophyta > Gnetopsida > Welwitschiales > Welwitschiacea.

References and more to explore
[1] Oxford Biography: Welwitsch, Friedrich Martin Josef (1806-1872), botanist [].
[2] Wilkinson's World: The Bizarre Welwitschia [].
[3] Natural History Museum: Portrait of Friedrich Welwitsch [,131698,en.pdf].
[4] Jane Goodall: The Roots of a Naturalist. Smithsonian March 2013, 43 (11), pp. 74-84 [].

1 comment:

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