A Theoretical African Botanical Road Trip

Words by
Georgina Reid
| July 13, 2015

My parents seem to spend half of their retired existence road tripping. They packed the caravan and headed north to Queensland in May, returned in June, and are now traipsing around Namibia. I’ve been following their African adventures from my computer and have, despite my vague jealousy, made some rather wonderful and weird botanical discoveries, which I think you, dear hunters of plants, may enjoy.

Here, for your enjoyment and my pain, is my current top five must-see plants for my theoretical Southern African road trip.

Image by Thomas Schoch, from Wikepedia Commons. Click on image for link.

Welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis)

This plant is a total weirdo. Whilst it looks kinda like a succulent, strappy, leaved thing, it’s actually related to conifers! It’s a gymnosperm, and has its own plant family, Welwitschiaceae. It’s a seriously old genus, and some people even call it a living fossil.

Welwitschia only ever produces two leaves. That’s it. It never grows more, the leaves just grow and grow and grow and get shredded and scrappier by the year.

The other amazing thing about this plant, which only grows to around 1.5m high, is how long lived it is. On average, plants live around 500-600 years, and some specimens are thought to be around 2000 years old!

Adasonia digitata. Image by Yoky, from Wikipedia Commons. Click on image for link.

Baobab (Adasonia digitata)

These trees are phenomenal. Deciduous for most of the year, some folks call them ‘upside down trees’ for obvious reasons. According to The Economist, there’s a specimen in Nabibia measuring 36m in diameter. I’d like to hug that.

Boabab trees are huge, and we would assume that they’re really old, but it’s actually very hard to tell as unlike most trees, they don’t have growth rings. Their trunks are succulent and often end up hollow – used for sheltering animals and humans. Some people think they live for 500 years, some much more.

Now, according to Wikipedia, the baobab’s fruit contains 50% more calcium than spinach, is high in antioxidants, and has three times the vitamin C of an orange. Put that in your smoothie, Bondi hipsters!

Aloe dichotoma. Image by Thomas Schoch from Wikipedia Commons. Click on image for link.

Quiver Tree (Aloe dichotoma)

This species of Aloe gets its common name for its use by the San people in southern Africa. They used its hollow stems as quivers for their arrows. Related, of course, to Aloe vera, A. dichotoma is, however, not quite as common. In fact its considered vulnerable in its native habitats of Namibia and South Africa due to climate change.

Despite their vulnerability, there are a couple of forests of these amazing plants left, one is near a place called Keetmanshoop, in Namibia. Definitely on my botanical road trip hit list!

Lithops salicola. Image by Cologne University Botanical Collection from Wikipedia Commons. Click on image for link.

Pebble Plants (Lithops spp.)

These guys rock! Get it? Ok. Bad joke. Lithops are smart little guys – they’ve adapted to the dog-eat-dog nature of the southern African environment by making themselves look like rocks, so no one eats them. They’re also rather marvellous storers of water. The big fat rock-looking leaves are devoted entirely to storing the live-giving liquid, which is lucky because they exist in some of the driest places in the world.

If I wanted to find some lithops in their natural habitat, I would have to go to Namibia, South Africa, or Botswana. Lucky, for me, and maybe you, there are a bunch of enthusiasts who sell seeds online – so I can bring a little bit of African road trip to my backyard. Cheaper than an airfare I guess…

Pachypodium namaquanum. Image by Winfried Bruenken from Wikipedia Commons. Click on image for link.

Half Man Plant (Pachypodium namaquanum)

This succulent gets its common name as from a distance it looks like a man. I think it looks like half man, half meerkat. Anyway, the halfman plant is native to Namibia and is actually in the same family as Oleander. It has a fat, warty trunk, covered in spines and a tuft of leaves at the very top of the plant.

It’s just a bit weird. And that’s why I like it.

And that’s that. Happy theoretical tripping!