It is probably safe to say that every manifestation of Beauty can claim its victims. Certain it is that Beauty, as represented by Alpine flowers, can make such claim and rank it high. In spite of all warning precedent, each year lengthens the roll of victims to this one of Beauty's forms; each year the Alpine flora lures the unwary and immoderate to mishap and disaster. Beauty is inoffensive - ay, it is more than inoffensive, it is beneficent - always providing, however, that we do not try to gather too much of it to ourselves. In itself, it can never so belie its name as to be disastrous. 'Beauty unadorned' is flawless; the mischief is in ourselves - blind, eager, immoderate, indiscreet - and all that we put upon our ideal. And when, as in the case of the Edelweiss, Beauty is linked with Tradition, our immoderation is apt to be the more pressing and inevitable, and Beauty receives a value and notoriety it should never possess.
But the pursuit of floral beauty - the pursuit of Botany, or the mere dilettante enthusiasm for plucking desirable flowers - in the Alps is not necessarily rash and dangerous. Danger exists anywhere the moment we act dangerously, and it is a mistake to think that we must necessarily risk broken bones, or perhaps our lives, in order to gather Edelweiss. The popular atmosphere surrounding this plant is charged with a goodly percentage of exaggeration. It is not rare for people fresh to Switzerland to pay her their first visit with brains obsessed by strange, weird myths and notions of Edelweiss and all things Alpine. Even in the plains, a simple Rhubarb-tart is made of Alpine Rhubarb, and is relished accordingly with untold ecstasy; and when the immediate region of the Alps is reached, and eyes peer out through the distorting hazes of Tradition, mere Marguerites have been known to take on the face and form of Edelweiss!
Edelweiss does, of course, grow often in sheer, precipitous places, but it is also often to be found within quite easy reach, and where there is no shadow of danger to life or limb. On one occasion (before the forts monopolized the superb rock of Dailly) I watched for over an hour, through binoculars, a peasant gathering Edelweiss on the hot, precipitous cliffs of the Dent de Morcles. He had been there, I was told, since early morning, worming his way along the narrow ledges, his only hold being some tuft of grass or crevice in the rock. He looked like a fly on a wall, and it was preposterous to think that he should be thus risking his life for the few pence which these flowers would bring him from the visitors at the hotel. Yet so it was. Towards evening he arrived, a worn but sturdy montagnard, quite oblivious of having accomplished anything which could be considered unusual, and glad to sell for a matter of fifteen pence all that might easily have cost him so much more dear. And only across the valley, on the sides of the Dent du Midi, I could have taken him to a spot where he might have gathered thrice the quantity in half an hour, and at no personal risk whatever. His exploit, however, went far to confirm and swell the popular romance surrounding this Alpine.
Known sometimes as Silverstar, and in French as Belle Étoile, or Étoile d' Argent, Leontopodium alpinum, the far-famed Edelweiss, is by no means rare. Nor is it distinctive of the Swiss Alps. Although absent in the Arctic regions, it is common in Siberia, Japan, New Zealand, China, and on the Himalayas; and it is a bridal flower in Austria, Hungary, and the Tyrol. In Switzerland itself it is common, especially on limestone formation; there are places where it is abundant on the Alpine pastures, and is mown down by the scythe, or eaten with avidity by the cows. But its range of altitude is not a wide one. Mr. H. Stuart Thompson, who has made a special study of the altitudinal limits of Alpine plants, gives the limit for Edelweiss in the Western Alps as 8,200 feet; and others give its range in the Alps generally as from about 5,700 feet to some 8,700 feet. On this score, then, there are flowers of more Alpine habit than this plant of swollen reputation - flowers such as the exquisitely lovely little blue Eritrichium nanum, the Mousse d'azur. And on the score of beauty, the 'blossom' of the Edelweiss is more curious than beautiful. 'That which looks,' says Dr. C. Schroter, 'like a large flower at the end of the stalk is in reality a very composite structure. It consists of numerous many-flowered heads, whose white, woolly, radially-arranged bracts imitate a flower.' This peculiarity can be better seen in a Japanese relative, Leonto-podium Japonicum, a species with the lower leaves green, resembling the leaves of a shrubby Veronica, and those around the insignificant flower-head a powdery white.
We shall perhaps be forgiven, then, if we find it a little strange that the Edelweiss should have so inflamed the imagination of the world, and should have become so obsessing an emblem of the Swiss Alps. Its title seems scarcely to fit the facts; indeed, face to face with these, it appears not a little monstrous. Maybe the bridal tradition has much to do with the flower's enormous repute. Its halo is evidently of no recent date. In a fifteenth-century portrait of a Swiss lady a bunch of this flower is being carried in the hand; and in some parts of Switzerland to-day a bouquet of Edelweiss and Vanilla Orchid handed to a girl by a man stands for a proposal of marriage. Maybe, too - and this, no doubt, is a still more potent factor - the deaths which the plant has occasioned have helped to place it as high as it is upon the scroll of fame: for the price we pay is so often the reason and measure for our esteem.
Now, that other 'everlasting,' the dainty little rose and white Antennaria dioica (Gnaphalium dioicum, Linn.), is really quite as fascinating as, and assuredly prettier than, the Edelweiss. True, it is commoner, far commoner, and it does not affect awesome cliffs and precipices - although, no doubt, it may at times be found so situated that the gathering of it would, for those who wish, entail some risk. And in a humbler, less noisy-way it is popular - if nomenclature is any test of popularity - for it is known variously as Mountain Cudweed, Chast weed, Mountain Everlasting, Cat's-ear, and Cat's-paw. It has, too, variety of blossom in its favour. On the male plant the flowers are round, and on the female they are long; while the range of colour in both male and female runs from white, through pink, to a deep rose. I know of few things more charming in this regard than a bouquet of this little flower in all its various tints. And if the Edelweiss is beloved of sheep and chamois, well, so also is the Mountain Cudweed, with its soft, woolly leaves; moreover, it is used most readily by the peasants for the making of an effective cough-mixture.