In 1863, Dr. Welwitsch discovered at Mossamedes, on the W. coast of Africa, a remarkable plant which Dr. J. D. Hooker described as Welwitschia mirabilis. Unlike other plants in appearance, its reproductive organs place it among the Gnetaceoe, a small family closely related to the conifers. The plant is never over a foot high, while its trunk is sometimes 5 or 6 ft. in diameter; the cotyledons, or seed leaves, which in most plants soon perish, in this continue to grow, and, though the plant may live for more than a century, these are all the leaves or foliaceous organs* it ever has. All the vegetative portions of the plant are the short, broad trunk, rapidly tapering to a strong descending root, and the cotyledons, which reach the length of 6 ft. and the width of 2 or 3 ft., and spread out upon the ground in opposite directions; they are green, very thick and leathery, and are often torn into segments or split up into shreds by the winds. The trunk each year increases slightly in diameter both above and below these leaves, so that they appear as if inserted in a deep slit or cavity; from this slit, at the upper side of the leaves, are produced the flower stalks, 6 to 12 in. high, much forked, and bearing at the end of each branch a cone the brilliant scarlet scales of which overlap each other in four rows, each containing a flower; when mature, the cones are about 2 in. long and half as thick.
The country where this plant is found is a sandy and stony plateau from 300 to 400 ft. above the sea, where rain seldom or never falls; in some places the whole surface is completely studded with these tabular masses, varying in size from a few inches to 6 ft. across, which have been likened to gigantic hat blocks; it is computed that the trunks of 18 in. diameter are over 100 years old.