The seeds of Welwitschia mirabilis may drop unnoticed into hollow pockets, to be covered with sand and left to slumber unnoticed for many years or even decades, until unusual rains cover the Namibian desert – storms of five days or more that wash the seeds from their gullies and into sunlight, leaching away the protective coatings and allowing the plant to begin its 1000-year cycle toward death. For this strange plant, nearly alone in its taxonomy and a living fossil, embodies as many unknowns as if it were not just a primitive plant, but an altogether alien one. Two permanent leaves, over time, are shredded into limp streamers – the only two leaves the plant shall ever bear, and the only source for harvesting water from the arid desert’s fog. A desert plant, and yet not a succulent in the way that we know members of the cacti family, with no deep roots, no water bladders for storage; none of the standard features. Everything about it seems accidental – the anonymous pollinators who fertilize one plant from another, the unlikely events that lead to seed germination, the swollen pink cones bursting with seeds splitting from the two, vulva-like lips of the female plant, and the outlandish idea that a plant might have just two leaves – the same two leaves – for the whole of its 2,000 years.
Survival relies on just such implausible truths. Plinths of stone may stand as long as this plant survives. Pyramids may falter and crumble in neighboring deserts. The lives of the few intrepid passersby in this parched place are as nothing to Welwitschia, whether human, or oryx, or Namib beetle. Continuance is everything.
The plant offers no defense other than life. It carries no spines and produces no foul poison. It cannot close its leaves to protect the fleshy body, which is said to taste like onion when cooked in hot ashes. It has no armor to repel predators, and protects no symbiotic allies within its sparse foliage. It simply exists… and endures.
Structures may learn many lessons from Welwitschia, beginning with the site. In a hostile climate adjacent to nowhere, few threats come from mobile bands of marauders. In the mirabilis life cycle, the plant thrives where not much else can survive, so threats are fewer and there is less chance of it NOT surviving.
There is something poetic about creating only two leaves – two spreading wings that continue to grow and thicken and separate throughout their life. Even as time passes and they are teased into filaments by wind and adventitious injury, they reach like tendrils into the morning to strip moisture from the wind and air. Sunshine is never in short supply when thousands of days pass between rainfalls. If architects could create wing structures of great flexibility without loss of function; mechanically perfect gleaners of the resources they need solely from sunlight and air; and celebrate the complete denial of aesthetics whether in its age or infancy, then there would stand the structural embodiment of Welwitschia. It would likely fail to outlive its model.