Bizarre Desert Plants of Namibia

Trees that cut their own branches? Jurrassic plants? The Namib Desert sure is home to some of the world’s rarest and most interesting flora and fauna. Guest blogger K Kristie has pulled together the facts on these strange life forms found in Namibia...

The Namib is a largely unpopulated and inaccessible desert in Namibia and southwest Angola which forms part of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Nicknamed the world’s oldest desert, it stretches 1,200 miles in length with an average width of only 70 miles along the coast of Namibia to form one of the most spectacular and richest deserts in the world. It’s also called the Skeleton Coast as many ships have been marooned on its treacherous coast. The Namib Desert is also home to the highest sand dunes in the world and some of the world’s rarest and most interesting flora.

Welwitschia Mirabilis

This plant is one of the few things on earth that can be truly called one of a kind. It consists only of two leaves and a stem base with roots. Both leaves that grow from opposite sides of the stem will continue to grow and never drops and instead gets brown by the sun and torn by the wind which will eventually look like lots of individual leaves. The stem gets thicker rather than higher although it can grow up to six feet high and twenty-four feet wide. At the age of 20, cone-like flowers appear. The female plant produces up to 100 flowers in a season, while the male produces an abundance of pollen.  Its lifespan is estimated to reach 2000 years.

Welwitschia mirabilis was discovered by botanist, explorer and medical doctor, Friedrich Welwitsch, in 1860 in the Namib Desert. He wanted to name it Tumboa, its native Angolan name but the plant was still named in his honor. The specie mirabilis means marvelous or wonderful in Latin. This plant is considered a living fossil and Charles Darwin was reported to have described it as “the platypus of the plant kingdom.”


Pachypodium namaquanum, more commonly known as elephant’s trunk, clubfoot, halfman or halfmens is a succulent plant that can sometimes look like a tree when fully grown. The name halfmens (this is how they spell it) is an Afrikaans word meaning semi-human which came from the fact that from a distance the plants look like people walking up a slope. This spiny cactus-like plant which can reach up to 4m tall can also attain an unmistakable bottle-like appearance. The flowers which appear from July to September are red on the inside and yellow-green on the outside. The crinkled leaves found at the top are velvety to the touch.  Fruits are horn-like and brown in color. Halfmens are found in dry rocky deserts at altitudes from 300-900 m above sea level. It can live up to more than a hundred years old. The name Pachypodium is a Greek word meaning ‘thick foot’, an allusion to its swollen base, while namaquanum is a reference to Namaqualand, an arid region in South Africa.


Baobab Tree

If there’s one tree you will never forget, it’s the Adansonia digitata. This is the most amazing plant in the planet. It’s capable of providing food, water, shelter and medicine for both animals and humans giving it the title “The Tree of Life.” It’s been called “grotesque” and “botanical monster” by some. The tree is leafless during most time of the year giving it an appearance as if its roots are sticking up in the air thus one of its common name—the upside-down tree.

The humongous white flowers last only a day and are pollinated by fruit bats. The fruit, called monkey-bread is a large, egg-shaped capsule covered with grayish green to yellowish brown hairs. It has a hard, woody outer shell with a dry, powdery substance rich in vitamin C which when soaked in water provide a refreshing drink that resembles lemonade thus giving another one of its common name—lemonade tree. This drink is also used to treat fever and other common ailments. The cork-like bark is fire resistant and is used to make cloth and rope. The leaves are used for condiments and medicines. The tree is capable of storing hundreds of liters of water, which is tapped during dry periods.

Mature trees are frequently hollow, providing living space for animals and humans. Trees are even used as houses, prisons, pubs and barns. Its broad trunk which can measure up to 15 meters in diameter doesn’t have annual growth rings. Its age can only be measured through radio carbon dating which found that baobabs can be over 2,000 years old.

The name Adansonia was named in remembrance to French naturalist Michel Adanson; the specie digitata meaning hand-like refers to the shape of the leaves. Other nicknames include cream of tartar tree, bottle tree and even dead-rat tree from the fact that it’s woody seed pods with furry coating look like rats hanging by their tails. Adansonia has six species in Madagascar and one each in mainland Africa and Australia. The biggest specie is the digitata or the African Baobab.

Quiver Tree

Another bizarre desert plant is the Kokerboom or Quiver tree. It has smooth branches covered with a thin layer of whitish powder that helps reflect away the hot sun rays. The bark has beautiful brown scales with razor sharp edges. The tree has blue-green leaves and the flowers which bloom in the months of June and July are bright yellow in color. The branches and bark are used by Kalahari San Bushmen to make quivers for their arrows thus the name. Large trunks of dead trees are also hollowed out and used as a natural refrigerator where water, meat and vegetables are stored inside. The fibrous tissue of the trunk has a cooling effect as air passes through it. The branches and trunk of the quiver tree are filled with a soft fiber that can store water. But in severe drought, it seals off its own branches to save moisture loss through the leaves. The branch end looks like an amputated limb. The quiver tree is in fact not a tree but a giant aloe. Its height can reach up to seven meters and has a lifespan of more than 80 years old.

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