pierre laszlo

Edelweiss: Leontopodium alpinum (Asteraceae)

Plant of the month (©Pierre Laszlo, all rights reserved)
Edelweiss: Leontopodium alpinum (Asteraceae)

This plant is famous for its flower, which has become synonymous with, and a symbol of mountaineering, initiallyin the Alps. Hence, even though relatively few people have seen it in its high elevation habitat, most of us know it from folk artefacts such as postcards and other souvenirs from a visit to an Alpine resort. 
My own case is typical, I knew or thought I knew the edelweiss, as a child long before I came upon a growth, as an adult. This was during a stay near Digne, in the département named Alpes de Haute Provence. With my wife and my children, we went on an excursion to the nearby village of Barles. 
Two unthreatening, rounded peaks oversee it. Shaped like church bells, they go by the names of Cloches de Barles, the Grande Cloche and the Petite Cloche. The latter is, counterintuitively, the tallest, at 1,909 m (about 6,500 ft). We picknicked on the approach meadows and started climbing the Petite Cloche. As the slope steepened, grass gave way to a field of pebbles — technically a hutch, from the erosion of the rocks above — with unsteady footing — no real danger, only that of sliding down and becoming bruised. I climbed on by myself. 
What enters the joy of hiking in the mountains? Slow adaptation of the breathing and of the gait to the steepness of the slope; taking in the constantly changing views; the utmost tranquility, balanced with the sensing or viewing of some of the local wild life; monitoring the sole imprints of previous hikers; having one’s body as the only means of transportation; the occasional sip of water, or bite into a dried fruit, or other caloric supply; and, once at the top, the inebriating feeling of being on the top of the world— even if, as was my case, only a modest hill has been conquered.  
Moreover, when I reached the top, consisting of a tiny meadow, of about 10 m by 10 m, it was covered with edelweiss flowers growing on top of the limestone. They were thriving in this high wilderness.   
Leontopodia indeed prefer rocky limestone places at about 1,800–3,000 m altitude. These altitudes explain the dense white hair of the leaves and flowers, protection against both cold and strong ultraviolet radiation. Each bloom consists of five to six small yellow clustered spikelet-florets (5 mm, 3⁄16 in) surrounded by fuzzy white bracts (not petals) in a double star formation. Blooming occurs only in summer, vacation time for many Europeans to take off to the Alps. Because it is a scarce short-lived flower found in remote mountain areas, the first alpinists — typically British — during the nineteenth century, the small crowds that followed during the twentieth century, would bring back edelweiss flowers as a token of having penetrated a restricted domain. Hence, the mutation to the symbolical, also to the mundane of popular kitsch. 
The latter has turned this plant, most peculiar in its aspect, into an endangered species.