Alpine plants Perennials

Edelweiss: the Garden Plant Inspired by a Song!

Edelweiss (Leontopodium nivale alpinum). Photo: J&Konrad, flickr.com

EDELWEISS
Leontopodium nivale alpinum

Dimensions: 6 to 14 in (10–40 cm) high × 8 to 14 in (20–40 cm) wide
Exposure: ☀️
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.

Most of us first heard about the edelweiss in the movie The Sound of Music,. Photo: abcnews.go.com

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 real flowers (in the center) are rather insignificant, but the fuzzy white bracts that surround them really do give the impression of a “flower of snow”. Photo: seedcorner.com

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 is ideal for rock gardens. Photo: http://www.jparkers.co.uk

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.

Varieties

Leontopodium nivale alpinum ‘Everest’. Photo: Fleuroselect

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.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. After studies at the University of Toronto and Laval University where he obtained his B.A. in modern languages in 1978, he succeeded in combining his language skills with his passion for gardening in a novel career as a garden writer and lecturer. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He is a regular contributor to and horticultural consultant for Fleurs, Plantes, Jardins garden magazine and has written for many other garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening, Rebecca’s Garden and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 50 other titles in English and French. He can be seen in Quebec on French-language television and was notably a regular collaborator for 7 years on the TV shows Fleurs et Jardins and Salut Bonjour Weekend. He is the President of the Garden Writers Association Foundation and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. An avid proponent of garden tourism, he has lead garden tours throughout Canada and to the gardens of over 30 countries over the last 30 years. He presently resides in Quebec City, Quebec.

2 comments on “Edelweiss: the Garden Plant Inspired by a Song!

  1. Margaret

    I knew someone who thought ‘Edelweiss’ was Austria’s 🇦🇹🇦🇹🇦🇹 national anthem! No further comment is needed.

  2. It has not done well for us. A colleague works in Austria annually, so tried to grow it here. It dislikes our mild climate so close to the ocean.

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