Friday, May 25, 2007

The Flower That Fell Off The Ark


Don't fancy yours much.


I've been travelling a lot, hence the total lack of blogging. My most recent trip was to Namibia, which produced this piece, published in thefirstpost the other day.


The Flower That Fell Off The Ark




I'm striding across the dunes of Namibia's Skeleton Coast, on the hunt for the word's ugliest plant. And I'm hoping I'm not too late, because welwitschia is fast disappearing from the great Namib desert.

If you've never heard of welwitschia, you're probably not alone. Despite the plant's unrivalled status as the most hideous specimen in the plant kingdom, it gets relatively little attention from conservationists.

The reason for this is obvious. When it comes to Extinction, it tends to be the more glamorous or endearing of the world's threatened species that enjoy all the fuss. The Giant Panda, the Siberian tiger, the glittering Irawaddy dolphins: these are the celebs of the ecological cause.

But what happens when an ugly, hard-to-love organism is under similar threat? The silence is deafening. Yet this is a shame, especially as regards welwitschia: because it is truly a remarkable species.

Surrounded by arid sand, the plant lives off the fog that rolls in off Namibia's cold-water coast. Some people think it is technically a semi-submerged tree. It only produces two long twining leaves, but these scroll out like diseased dragons' tongues, ending in sun-bleached grey frizzle.

The plant is poisonous to most animals, and is inhabited mainly by the pyrrhocorrid bug. This beetle is vernacularly known as the push-me-pull-you - because of its ceaseless back-to-back copulation. Luckily for these sex-mad insects, a welwitschia can live 2000 years - making it one of the most pensionable organisms on earth.

Welwitschia's scientific "history" is almost as intriguing. It was discovered by, and named for, an Austrian botanist in the 19th century, who was apparently so confused by the plant he couldn't believe what he was seeing. These days botanists consider welwitschia to be a living fossil.

All of which makes me keen to encounter this freaky tree. Kneeling on the rocks I scan the hot, misty horizon. I may be out of luck. Changing climate and human pressure are diminishing the unique habitat where welwitschias thrive.

But there! I can see one. And wow - they're right - it sucks. It looks like the wretched offspring of a Triffid and a collapsed Irish rugby scrum. Sprawled messily across the sand, it has an air of bashful sadness. As if it knows it is no beauty.

The funny thing is, I kind of like it. And I think it deserves a little more love. After all, the knitting pattern of the world needs plain as well as pearl.

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