Edelweiss (Leontopodium nivale alpinum). Photo: J&Konrad, flickr.com
Leontopodium nivale alpinum
Dimensions: 6 to 14 in (10–40 cm) high × 8 to 14 in (20–40 cm) wide
Soil: well drained, gravelly, slightly moist to somewhat dry, not too rich
Flowering Season: June-July
Multiplication: division, seeds
Uses: flower bed, border, bed, rockery, low wall, container, xerophytic garden, cut flower, dried flower, medicinal plant
Associations: pinks, dwarf grasses, houseleeks, gentians
Hardiness zones: 3–7
There are more than fifty species of Leontopodium (the name means “lion’s paw” because the flower bracts look like claws) distributed throughout the alpine and arctic zones of Eurasia, but only one is commonly cultivated: the alpine edelweiss (L. nivale alpinum, most often sold under its former name, L. alpinum), native to the Alps and other mountains throughout Europe.
Edelweiss is the German common name and means “noble white”. In Italy, it’s known as “stella alpina”: star of the Alps.
The plant was popularized by the eponymous song from the musical The Sound of Music, written by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, which means more people know the song than have seen the plant, as it remains relatively rare in gardens … and not all of us have scoured the Alps looking for it.
Despite the popular belief that the edelweiss is the floral emblem of Austria, that isn’t quite true. That role falls to the alpine gentian: Gentiana alpina. It is, however, the official floral emblem of neighboring Switzerland. But Rogers and Hammerstein were really not mistaken in choosing the plant as the theme of their song about Austrian nationalism, as it features on Austrian coinage and stamps and is the insignia of Austria’s alpine troops.
The plant forms a tuft of erect, outward-arching stems bearing lance-shaped leaves covered with white hairs, giving the leaves a silver-gray appearance. The inflorescence consists of a cluster of five to six small flower heads made up of tiny florets that are woolly white in bud, but creamy yellow when they open. What catches the eye, however, is the collar of white woolly bracts that surrounds the flower head, usually mistaken for the flower’s petals.
It is an absolutely stunning plant when discovered during a hike in the Alps, but sometimes disappointing in cultivation, as the bracts tend to turn grayish rather than white when soaked with rain and are often stained by particles of soil as well. To keep them clean, cover the soil around the plant with a layer of fine gravel … and while you’re at it, you might want to choose dark gravel, as that will bring out the beautiful silvery gray of the foliage and the sparkling whiteness of the bracts.
As a child, I always had the impression that edelweiss was rare and extremely difficult to grow, perhaps nearly impossible to cultivate outside of the Austrian and Swiss Alps. But in fact, it’s reasonably easy: not rudbeckia or coreopsis easy, but something any serious temperate-climate gardener ought to be able to handle.
Edelweiss prefers full sun or only the very lightest shade and perfectly drained soil. You might want to mix about one third fine gravel into your usual soil to replicate alpine conditions. It grows well in alkaline soils, but adapts to moderately acid ones as well. It will tolerate drought once established, although first-year plants are still quite fragile.
The plant is often said to be “short-lived,” but this is especially the case when it’s grown in a regular flower bed in rich, fairly moist soil. (And yes, that can be done.) But if you try to recreate its natural environment, that is, alpine conditions, edelweiss can live for many years. It especially likes cool summers, obviously not something every gardener can provide. It may self-sow to a certain degree when it likes your garden, but not to the point of becoming invasive.
Edelweiss fairly easy to grow from seed (and no, you don’t need to give it a cold treatment), but you can also multiply it by division.
Where to find it? Your local garden center may not carry edelweiss (mine doesn’t), but it’s common enough in specialized alpine nurseries and many seed companies offer seeds. You can even find seeds on eBay and Amazon.
Leontopodium nivale alpinum ‘Everest’: dwarf variety. Sometimes blooms the first year from seed. Fleuroselect winner. 7–8cm x 8–10 cm. Zones 3–7.
Leontopodium alpinum ‘Mignon’: more compact than the species. 10–20cm x 20–30 cm. Zonea 3–7.