At the top of the Alps in Austria lies a small flower known as edelweiss. Fairytales tell us it formed from the tears of a Snow Queen and local lore speaks of brave men risking their lives to pluck the flowers for their beloveds. It is a symbol of devotion and purity but also of resistance. Leontopodium alpinum has woolly white bracts and yellow or white in the axis. It grows on the steep mountain terrain surrounded by harsh weather conditions. It is said when a man has fallen for a woman he would climb the mountains risking his life to pluck the flower and bring it to his partner as an act of devotion. She would then press it into a necklace and wear it around her neck as a token of their love. Many men fell to their deaths trying to obtain one for those who survived the journey it symbolized great bravery. In German, “edel” means noble and “weiss” means white. It was a symbol of noble purity.
I've been drawn to edelweiss for years. Growing up I would take my grandmother's pendant and hold it in my hands wondering who picked the flower and if it was given or bought. I wished for one of my own. When family would visit from Austria they'd bring us jewelry. Sometimes it was necklaces with red ruby like stones and other times bracelets with the flower etched and painted into the metal. I thought I would never get one of my own. Christmases would come and go. We'd exchange gifts, sometimes perfumes or candles with the edelweiss scent but the US was not as interested in the flower as I was. I forgot about the pendant but still the little woolly flower crept into my consciousness in many ways including pop culture.
It became a muse to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "The Sound of Music" where Captain von Trapp and his family sing it as support for their homeland. As Austria was being taken over by Germans, it became a song of resistance as he is pressured to join the German Navy following the Anschluss. It becomes a symbolic goodbye to his homeland as he makes the decision to flee to nuetral Switzerland. The song was so convincing that people thought it was the national anthem.
The song took a ominous turn when it became the opening soundtrack for "The Man in the High Castle" The 2015 tv series is loosely based on Philip K Dick's alternative history novel set 15 years after WWII in which we see America divided after an Axis victory. The east is run by the Nazi Reich and the west by Japan. The show focuses on the rebel fighters resisting totalitarian rule. It offers multiple timelines offering a different outcome of the war through propaganda films that are being distributed by the resistance. While "The Sound of Music" offered hope, love, and resistance this version becomes a haunting dystopian melody of desperation.
Edelweiss has been valued for centuries as a medicinal plant aiding in protection against ultraviolet radiation. This comes from the harsh conditions it grows in. It is a natural anti-aging plant as it carries a high amount of antioxidants, and it's root extract is used as a cure for dermatitis and fluid retention. It has been traditionally used to help with both respiratory and abdominal issues due to bactericidal properties. It is not edible and the plant should not be eaten. Currently there are legal limitations to the picking and usage of the flower.
I recently purchased the pendant at the top of the page as an ode to my grandmother. It formed new meaning as I thought about her life in Austria living through the Anschluss, and settling in the US as an Austrian and Sinti woman. I've always felt connected to edelweiss and the stories connected to it. Life can be bittersweet and this tiny flower is an incredible reminder that sometimes the sweetest things are worth the hardships we endure. I've always thought the deepest love and joy is felt through our experiences both positive and negative. We can't feel true happiness until we've understood sorrow and vice versa.
To end this on a magical note I bring you to the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale of the Snow Queen, a tale of love, loss, and a flower by the name of edelweiss.
There is a legend that, once upon a time, a beautiful fairy, the Snow Queen, lived on the highest, most solitary peaks of the Alps. The mountain folk and shepherds climbed to the summits to admire her, and everyone fell head over heels in love with her.
Every man would have given anything, including his life, to marry her. Indeed, their lives are just what they did give, for Fate had decided that no mortal would ever marry the Snow Queen. But in spite of that, many brave souls did their best to approach her, hoping always to persuade her.
Each suitor was allowed to enter the great ice palace with the crystal roof, where the Queen’s throne stood. But the second he declared his love and asked for her hand, thousands of goblins appeared to grasp him and push him over the rocks, down into bottomless abysses.
Without the slightest emotion, the Queen would watch the scene, her heart of ice unable to feel anything at all. The legend of the crystal palace and the beautiful heartless Queen spread as far as the most distant alpine valley, the home of a fearless chamois hunter. Fascinated by the tale, he decided to set out and try his luck. Leaving his valley, he journeyed for days on end, climbing the snowclad mountain faces, scaling icebound peaks and defying the bitterly cold wind that swept through the alpine gullies.
More than once he felt all was lost, but the thought of the lovely Snow Queen gave him new strength and kept him moving onwards. At last, after many days climbing, he saw glinting in the sunshine before him, the tall transparent spires of the ice palace.
Summoning all his courage, the young man entered the Throne Room. But he was so struck by the Snow Queen’s beauty that he could not utter a word. Shy and timid, he did not dare speak. So he knelt in admiration before the Queen for hours on end, without opening his mouth. The Queen looked at him silently, thinking all the while that, provided he did not ask her hand in marriage, there was no need to call the goblins.
Then, to her great surprise, she discovered that his behaviour touched her heart. She realised she was becoming quite fond of this hunter, much younger and more handsome than her other suitors. Time passed and the Snow Queen dared not admit, not even to herself, that she would actually like to marry the young man.
In the meantime, the goblins kept watch over their mistress; first they were astonished, then they became more and more upset. For they rightly feared that their Queen might be on the point of breaking the Law and bringing down on the heads of all the Mountain People the fury of Fate.
Seeing that the Queen was slow to give the order to get rid of her suitor, the goblins decided to take matters into their own hands. One night, as dusk fell, they slipped out of the cracks in the rock and clustered round the young chamois hunter. Then they hurled him into the abyss. The Snow Queen watched the whole scene from the window, but there was nothing she could do to stop them. However, her icy heart melted, and the beautiful cruel fairy suddenly became a woman.
A tear dropped from her eye, the first she had ever shed. And the Snow Queen’s tear fell on to a stone where it turned into a little silvery star.
This was the first edelweiss … the flower that grows only on the highest, most inaccessible peaks in the Alps, on the edge of the abyss and precipice . . .