Kilimanjaro’s Hidden Gem: Prehistoric Plants, A Mesmerizing Blend Of Cactus And Pineapple

Kilimanjaro’s Hidden Gem: Prehistoric Plants, A Mesmerizing Blend Of Cactus And Pineapple




Resembling something out of Jurassic Park, the strange-looking Dendrosenecio kilimanjari can only be found atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, is pretty fascinating in itself. The further you ascend this free-standing mountain, its climate zones progressively become less like the ground-level landscape, incubating isolated, mutated, or rare species found almost nowhere else.

One of the most striking of these species is the Kilimanjaro giant groundsel (Dendrosenecio kilimanjari), a prehistoric plant that evolved about a million years ago and looks like a twist between a burned-up cactus and a pineapple.

Dendrosenecio kilimanjari grows only on Mount Kilimanjaro, at altitudes of 14,000-16,000 feet (4300-5000 meters), where it has learned to harness the ability to survive sub-zero temperatures.

These plants are slow-growing but can reach a height of 30 feet (9 meters). Related, but similarly isolated sub-varieties of giant groundsel (Dendrosenecio) can be found on a handful of other East African mountains, but nowhere else.

Dendrosenecio kilimanjari and the mighty Kilimanjaro. Image credit: Andrea Schieber
Giant Groundsels are a member of the dandelion family and scientists think they all evolved from a common groundsel around a million years ago.

They climbed higher and higher up the mountains through the slow process of windborne seed distribution (which would move the plants no more than a few meters at a time), eventually turning into a new species.




Image credit: Brendon


In order to survive in such a forbidding environment where temperatures regularly dip below freezing overnight, giant groundsels evolved water storage in the pith of their stem, with the leaves closing when it gets too cold.

Besides this natural ‘anti-freeze,’ these plants also secure self-insulation through withered and dead foliage (which is part of the reason why they look so otherwordly).

Image credit: Stig Nygaard
Strange and fascinating, one could imagine dinosaurs snacking on these big old plants.

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