The Edelweiss, Leontopodium alpinum, about which so much romance has been woven, and which is commonly believed to grow only in places almost unapproachable even to the hardiest mountaineer, is just not true.
Those who have really interested themselves in Alpine plants are aware that it can often be gathered near many of the Alpine centers without the trouble of forsaking a well-made path. This is true, for instance, of some of the hills above Zermatt and Saas. Yet if we were to go and search for this plant, our chances of coming across it would usually be quite small, unless we were guided by the experience of others.
The explanation is that the Edelweiss, while not a rare plant, is exceedingly local in its distribution. It does frequently occur among the most inaccessible of crags, but even there it is often not to be seen. On the other hand, it will sometimes cover a stony, dry, almost level alp by the acre.
Many other Alpines, such as the Saxifrages, cling to the crevices of a cliff, but these nearly all require some degree of moisture in the scanty soil, or some situation well exposed to the weather. Where the conditions are such that a minimum degree of moisture is alone available, there the Edelweiss will outstrip its competitors, and succeed in the struggle for existence. Where it occurs in surroundings in which other plants can flourish, there it must compete against them for a bare livelihood. Thus, as a rule, Edelweiss is restricted to the driest and barest rocks, barren of other plants; and since such localities are relatively infrequent, the Edelweiss is a local plant, though often exceedingly abundant where it does occur. On the other hand, in places where the circumstances that prevail appear to be in every way adapted to its needs, the Edelweiss is often conspicuous by its absence.
Thus the sentimental value of the Edelweiss does not really depend so much on its rarity or difficulty of collection, as on the fact that the localities in which it grows are comparatively few and far between. It is one of the most local of Alpine flowers, a fact in itself of great botanical interest.
The name, though by now almost completely anglicized, is a combination of two German words: edel = precious and weiss = white. So we see that romance is bound up in the very name itself.
The Higher Plants have, as a rule, green leaves and often green stems, and this is true also of the Edelweiss, but the green color is here masked by the coat of hairs.
The leaves of the Edelweiss, like those of many other Alpines, are arranged in a small rosette just above the soil. A single stalk springs from the leaves bearing what, at first sight, appears to be a solitary flower, but which in reality is a very complicated structure consisting of several flower-heads, each with a large number of individual flowers. It is one of the peculiarities of the order Composites to which the Edelweiss belongs, that the flowers should be all mashed together into one or more heads. The single heads of a Daisy or a Sunflower, for instance, are not flowers, but collections of a large number of flowers, seated on a large receptacle. If we cut one of these heads through with a pocketknife lengthwise, we can see the receptacle, and also separate the individual flowers from one another.
At the same time, the head performs all the functions of a single flower and is in itself an adaptation designed for that very purpose. In the Edelweiss, however, the heads are very small and yellowish in color and, further, they are grouped together into what appears at first sight to be a single head. Thus, what is apparently a single flower is really a very complicated structure. There is a large central head, composed of many flowers and equivalent to the inflorescence of a Daisy or a Sunflower, surrounded by a varying number, usually five, of other smaller heads, the whole being wrapped around by woolly leaves which are called bracts. These bracts are the conspicuous part of the so-called Edelweiss “flower.”
It must be remembered that the Edelweiss usually flourishes in very dry situations, where there is comparatively little moisture in the soil. In this respect, it is like a plant growing in a desert. They grow in dry, stony places, and their cottony coats prevent excessive loss of moisture.