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  • Writer's pictureDebi Holland

Elusive Edelweiss

Finding Edelweiss by mountain bike in French Alps

Leontopodium alpinum, commonly known as Edelweiss is one of the most symbolic wildflowers of the alps. Protected in France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Solvenia and India, it is a rare find.

Finding Leontopodium alpinum in the French Alps

This summer I was lucky to spend some time in the Tarentaise Valley in the French Alps. The snow capped mountains give way to vast plains of wildflower meadows.

I am able to indulge two of my favourite pastimes, plant finding and mountain biking. Mountain biking has become an incredible way for me to get into remote areas which I may not otherwise reach by foot.

Mountain biking in the French Alps

I have been travelling to the Alps for decades and every visit I have been on the look out for Edelweiss but it is surprisingly elusive. Finally I can share that I have located an area where Edelweiss thrives.

At 2500m, surrounded by glaciers and mountain scree the Savoie alps provide the perfect conditions for this perennial alpine.

Although not technically under threat due to its wide dispersal throughout many countries it still proves elusive to locate. Sightings are few and far between; in fact for all my avid searching I have only ever found it in one spot between Val D'Isère and Tignes.

Edelweiss at home at 2500m

Edelweiss derives its name from the German words for noble (edel) and white (weiß) whilst its latin botanical name, Leontopodium alpinum, comes from the Greek name 'leontopódion' meaning 'lion's paw.'

Belonging the Asteraceae (daisy) family it flowers from July to September with a cluster of 2-10 tightly compact yellow flower heads surrounded by silverly grey soft woolly star-shaped bracts and typically grows between 1500m and 3400m in rich calcareous soils of rocky meadows. These alkaline soils contain calcium carbonate from the limestone rock.

The densely matted woolly hairs are known as 'tomentose' and help retain water, they protect against wind, rain and intense ultraviolet rays. A truly unique plant perfectly adapted to its harsh environment.

Woolly bracts of Edelweiss

Surviving extreme cold and heat, these hardy perennials really are a botanic inspiration. Their exquisite beauty should be treasured and admired but left insitu for everyone to enjoy. It is an offensive to pick these wildflowers after decades of being picked to virtual extinction.

Edelweiss at 2500m French Alps

Edelweiss is pollinated by a wide variety of insects but predominantly flies who are attracted to the flower's sweet honey-like scent and carry the pollen grains on their legs. This is a mutualistic interaction which benefits both.

Edelweiss is symbolic of purity and love and is the national emblem of Switzerland and Austria.

Edelweiss nestled in an alpine meadow

Although rare in the wild Leontopodium alpinum has been commercial cultivated for herbal tea and due to its healing properties cosmetics products such as sun block. Scientifically proved to have great healing properties, it is an antioxidant, antifungal and antiflammatory and used to treat diarrhoea and rheumatic pain.

My favourite folklore claims are that Edelweiss can make you bullet-proof and invisible - mmm, do not think I want to test these theories!

Cluster of Edelweiss on the mountainside

I was so elated to find Edelweiss in the wild. It is the second year on the trot I have found it in this particular location and it appeared to be covering a wider area than last year so it is encouraging to see it thriving.

There is something magical about coming across a rare plant in its natural habitat. Suddenly the pages of reference books come to life, the flower is no longer just a flat photo in a book but a tangible living entity, part of the biodiverse fabric of the boundless wild alpine meadows.

Seen in all its glory and as surreal as you can imagine, as if a child had put together the flower from a box of fuzzy felts, it certainly deserves its reputation as a unique symbol of the Alps. I will certainly always be enchanted by Edelweiss and hold it in very high regard.

À bientôt!

At home at 2500m in the French Alps

All photos taken by Debi Holland © 2018

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