Stephen RyanThe ugliest plant in the world

As you all probably know I’m a mad keen plant collector and within the constraints of climate and the size of my garden I want to grow as many different plants as I can manage. Having said this I also wish to make my garden an attractive landscape (at least to my eyes) and not just a collection.

Stephen wanted to visit a plant with 2 leaves

The plant with 2 leaves, Welwitschia mirabilis

I am also more than happy to push the barriers and attempt things that all around me say are impossible as the pleasure of saying I did it is huge and I’m more than happy to hide my failures in the compost heap. It is a learning curve after all whether I win or lose.

None of this is enough for me, as I also get a great deal out of visiting far flung places to see plants growing in the wild that I couldn’t grow in a pink fit and in many cases wouldn’t want to! In fact when I travel I usually go with at least one weird plant in mind as a major draw card to go in the first place. This doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see everything that a foreign country has to offer but it does give me a focus.

In 2011 I decided on one of my most adventurous trips to the deserts of Namibia, with the main purpose of seeing one of the worlds strangest plants. My partner when asked “why Namibia” was very happy to say “Stephen wanted to visit a plant with two leaves”; true and obviously said in such a way as to make me seem daft!

Welwitschia mirabilis

Welwitschia mirabilis

Welwitschia mirabilis has to be one of the world’s ugliest plants as well, as it looks like a messy pile of half dead kelp attached to a bulbous woody trunk that looks like a malignant growth! It astounds me that as far as I know it was never used on the set of the old science fiction TV. Show ‘Lost In Space’. I’m almost sure I saw Dr. Smith hiding behind one!

So apart from being in the running for the Ugly Cup what would lead me half way round the world to see it?

The Welwitschia bug, Odontopus sexpunctatus

The Welwitschia bug, Odontopus sexpunctatus

I remember as a young horticultural student being told of this strange conifer relative that survives in the deserts of Namibia and Angola, due to its capacity to collect condensation from the ocean mists on its leaves that then channel it to the roots. It also produces cones, which are probably the only visual indicator of its conifer relationship. It can apparently live for up to 2000 years and in all that time it only has the two true leaves that it produced after germinating and these keep growing throughout its life, apparently the only plant to do this. The desert sands keep wearing them away as well as ripping them along their length so that to the uninitiated it looks as though it has lots of leaves.

It is one of those plants that are either male or female and much of the pollination is done, believe it or not, by the Welwitschia Bug Odontopus sexpunctatus, one sex of which is bright red with black spots and the other sex is faun with dark spots, so you could easily assume that they were in fact two species.

Giraffe

Giraffe

The only plants of Welwitschia that I’ve seen in cultivation were in deep sand beds under cover so that watering could be controlled.

So although I don’t want to grow one, I’m certainly glad I went to visit them in the wild and managed to see lots of lions, elephant and giraffe as well.

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Stephen Ryan

About Stephen Ryan

Stephen Ryan grew up and still lives at Mt. Macedon in Victoria where he has run his nursery Dicksonia Rare Plants since 1980. He was for 3 years host of Gardening Australia on ABC TV and is a regular on Melbourne’s 3CR. Sunday garden program. He has written 4 books and innumerable articles for magazines both in Australia and abroad and is also a sought-after speaker at garden clubs.

5 thoughts on “The ugliest plant in the world

  1. Reed Pugh on said:

    Ugliest plant that I have seen…it’s a shame that it must live so long. Goes to show you there is a bug for every plant.

    Very cool.

    • Dear Reed,
      God moves in mysterious ways!
      Regards Stephen

  2. Hi Stephen

    When I saw the title I was sure you were talking about the plants that I love to collect; Stapeliads. I wasn’t too far, at least on location but my plants are not only ugly, they stink, being flies their only pollinators. They are attracted by the flowers’ carrion smell, aren’t they clever?

    Carol

    • I can’t believe that there’s something uglier than a Welwitschia but you’re right…..if you added a stink…….

  3. Jenny Purdie on said:

    Ugly no – fascinating yes. I have seen these amazing.plants in Namibia several times and never tire of them. I would rather have a Welvitzia than many boring old ” English” garden plants

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