Edelweiss is a flower known to many thanks to ‘The Sound of Music’ but I suspect that few could describe what it looks like. Up close it does look interesting but the word beautiful doesn’t spring immediately to mind. If Helen of Troy’s face was one to launch a thousand ships, that of the edelweiss would leave them safely in port.
When the first flower appeared on the small plant I’d bought at my local nursery I was very excited but this quickly turned to disappointment. Whilst the close up photograph of this star-shaped flower does look rather beautiful, it doesn’t pack quite that punch in real life.
One of my books on Alpine flowers describes it as having a drab appearance and whilst up close the felty texture is intriguing, I have to agree that drab is a good description.
Its leaves are unkempt and the flower always looks to me as if it’s about to turn from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan – but never does. In fact as the flowers develop, they get even less attractive as the star shape is lost. The outer bracts turn backwards leaving a series of dull yellow tinged flowers in the centre, looking a bit like a multi-eyed alien.
However, grouped en masse in alpine meadows the plant is as thrilling a sight as our own native bluebell woods.
In his book ‘The English Rock Garden’, written in 1913, Reginald Farrer described the sight of massed groupings of the flower as follows;
“It is often a really beautiful sight, covering the highest lawns of the Alps with tufts of grey, and galaxies of pale flannel starfishes”
He goes on to say how easily it spreads, being a great self-seeder and laughs at the tourists of Edwardian times who seek it in the wrong places;
“…every season the misguided go dropping off precipices on which a few stray tufts have seeded down; not knowing that 200 feet higher, in the soft alpine grass, they could be picking basins-full of blossom in half an hour’s gentle and octogenarian stroll before dinner”
Reginald Farrer was obviously fond of the flower and even describes it growing in window boxes in London where “…the smuts enhance its colour”.
Since the Edelweiss is sought by many a tourist visitor to the alps, it retains a reputation for being rare and precious, and indeed years of collection have led now to its protection in the wild.
The latin name Leontopodium means ‘lion’s foot’ but the common names better describe its form. The french name ‘Etoile des alpes’ and italian ‘Stella alpina’ both reference the star shaped flowers, whilst the german ‘Edelweiss’ means noble white – signalling the reverance many people have for this flower. The other common name ‘Flannel flower’ I think describes well the felty texture of stem and flower.
I have found it very easy to grow in a pot. After flowering I put it aside and don’t worry about the cold, although I keep it on an outdoor table under a tree so that it doesn’t get too wet. It obviously thrived in this winter’s heavy snow and cold since summer 2018 has seen more flowers than ever.
Despite it’s peculiar looks, I do love my Edelweiss plant. I celebrate the fact that it has achieved such fame and risen from humble mountain plant to become the stuff of legends.
In a world where looks usually trump talent it’s fabulous to see an ugly duckling remaining so, but still finding fame.