Edelweiss: The meaning and myths behind the symbolic flower of Switzerland

Edelweiss: The meaning and myths behind the symbolic flower of Switzerland

The edelweiss flower has a very strong association with the Alps and since the 19th century has become one of the most iconic symbols and images of Switzerland - featuring in songs and literature, and adorning everything from airlines and coins to company logos. 

Edelweiss flower

As a member of the sunflower and daisy family, it’s easy to see why this beautiful mountain plant is so adored, especially in Switzerland. Despite its longstanding connection with Switzerland, the edelweiss is actually the national flower of several other countries including Romania, Austria, Slovenia and Italy. 

The flower itself is easily recognisable thanks to its beautiful white leaves and clustered yellow flower heads. The bloom is covered in tiny white woolly hairs, giving the plant a distinctive appearance. 

Edelweiss flower

Leontopodium alpinum: The edelweiss plant

Known to botanists by its Latin name, Leontopodium alpinum or Leontopodium nivale, the edelweiss plant has been used for centuries to treat medical conditions and health complaints. The plants were historically popular with medical practitioners in the Swiss mountains for treating illnesses such as abdominal pain, respiratory diseases, heart disease and even diarrhoea. 

Where does edelweiss grow?

Edelweiss plants like a rocky climate where the ground is composed of limestone. It grows best at an altitude of 1.800 to 3.000 metres above sea level, making the Swiss mountains the perfect place to find these stunning flowers. The plant’s hairs protect it from the harsh mountain climate and allow it to bloom between July and September each year. 

Where can you see edelweiss in Switzerland?

In Switzerland, like all other wild plants, edelweiss is strictly protected and cannot be picked. You can often find it in the Swiss Alps in limestone soil or on grassy hills at higher altitudes. It can be easier to spot one of these beautiful plants if you look for the bright yellow flowers in the centre of the plant itself since this part often stands out from the rest of the landscape.

There are plenty of well-known edelweiss hiking trails around famous Swiss mountain regions including Zermatt and Glarus.

Edelweiss flower legend

According to folklore, the plant symbolises dedication. Traditional Swiss lore says that gifting an edelweiss flower to a loved one is a promise of dedication. Aside from this, farmers have historically used the flowers to treat their cattle, since they believed the flowers had healing properties. They would often burn edelweiss as they believed that the smoke could treat problems with their cows' udders. 

Is edelweiss Switzerland's national flower?

With all of this taken into account, it is easy to see why Switzerland has such a deep connection with the edelweiss plant. That's why the country has taken the edelweiss as its (unofficial) national flower.

Edelweiss in the Swiss Alps

Edelweiss meaning

Edelweiss has had many different common names over the years - from Wullbluomen ("wool flower") and Immortelle des Alpes ("Immortal Alpine") to Chatzen-Talpen ("cat's paws") and Klein Löwenfuss (Little Lionfoot). The scientific name Leontopodium is the Latinisation of a Greek word meaning "lion's paw".

What does edelweiss mean?

Literally translated as “noble white”, the plant was given the name edelweiss in 1785. Edelweiss was just one of the plant's regional names, but over time achieved widespread usage as alpine tourism grew in popularity. 

During the 19th century, the white and yellow edelweiss flower, growing on rocky outcrops, became a symbol of the rugged purity of the Alps and its inhabitants. The flower's popularity skyrocketed especially thanks to a story involving the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I, who is said to have picked one of the flowers for his wife Sisi while on a mountain hike. 

Edelweiss as a symbol

As mountain tourism grew towards the end of the 19th century, so too did the popularity of the flower, which was used again and again as a symbol by mountaineers and alpine clubs and associations. In the late 19th century it was given protective status to prevent it from dying out because it was being picked so regularly by eager hikers. 

As so often is the case with popular symbols, over the ensuing years the edelweiss was tugged in all different directions, as multiple groups and movements (often with wildly different ideologies) tried to harness the symbolic power of the flower. 

The bloom appeared on the uniforms of Austro-Hungarian Imperial troops as early as 1907, and was handed out to German troops during World War One as a reward for bravery. During the Second World War, the flower was adopted by the National Socialists (or Nazis) as a national symbol and featured in patriotic songs and on Wehrmacht and SS uniforms, while at the same time, an anti-Nazi resistance group, the Edelweiss Pirates, used the flower as a symbol of strength. 

Edelweiss in the Swiss alps sunset

Edelweiss song

But perhaps the most well-known use of edelweiss is a song from the 1959 musical The Sound of Music, which was set in Austria on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1938. 

Edelweiss song meaning

Edelweiss is sung by the character Captain Georg von Trapp as a symbol of Austrian patriotism and defiance, as he defies pressure to join the Nazi party and bids his homeland and extended family farewell as the Von Trapps flee to Switzerland. 

The song was written by the legendary musical duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Sadly, the song was to be the last ever written by the pair, as Hammerstein passed away just nine months after it debuted at the Broadway premiere of The Sound of Music

The song proved to be one of the most popular from the play - despite originally being dismissed as "kitsch" by Austrian critics - so much so that in the film version of The Sound of Music, an extra scene was added so that the song could be sung twice.

This widespread popularity has given rise to some myths about Edelweiss - it is not, as is sometimes claimed, an Austrian folk song or the Austrian national anthem. Another common misconception is that it was a Nazi anthem. Although the Nazis did use the edelweiss as an emblem in propaganda, the Edelweiss song didn't exist during the Nazi era, and within the context of The Sound of Music, the song is used to soundtrack a moment of defiance against the Nazis. 

Edelweiss lyrics

The lyrics to Edelweiss are as follows:

Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Every morning you greet me
Small and white clean and bright
You look happy to meet me
Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever

Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever
Small and white clean and bright
You look happy to meet me
Blossom of snow may you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Edelweiss, Edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever

Edelweiss song on YouTube

Thankfully, Rodgers and Hammerstein live on through the power of the internet, and we can still enjoy their wonderful song today. Check out this video to see Edelweiss in the film adaptation of The Sound of Music.

Video: YouTube / Rodgers and Hammerstein

Edelweiss everywhere else

Edelweiss is also symbolic in many other countries, especially across Europe. Of course, the Austrian connection is clear, thanks to The Sound of Music, but there are many other nations that value the plant too. 

The flower features on Romanian banknotes, the logo of the Croatian Mountain Rescue Service, German federal police uniforms, the French mountain troops school emblem, Kyrgyz postage stamps and Kazakh coins, amongst other things. The flower is also used on the clothing of military personnel in Russia and Poland, as well as being seen on the coat of arms of many regions across the continent. 

Edelweiss restaurant

Image: / Fotokon

Edelweiss as a name

Edelweiss is still so popular in Switzerland that it is growing in popularity as a name! Many Swiss names take inspiration from the country’s landscape, culture and traditions and Edelweiss is an ever more popular example of that. The growing popularity of the name is probably thanks to the huge success of The Sound of Music and while the name is still pretty rare, it’s definitely becoming much more common.

5-franc coin

The five-franc coin features small edelweiss flowers embossed on the obverse, alongside gentian flowers and the portrait of an Alpine herdsman. You can take a look for yourself by heading to a nearby Swiss bank and asking to withdraw some francs. 

Edelweiss Air

Of course, this article would not be complete without mentioning Edelweiss Air. The airline, which is named after the plant and features the flower as part of its livery, was founded in 1995 and is the sister airline of SWISS, the country’s flag-carrier airline. 

The company started operations with just one plane, before it was able to “blossom and grow” to the 14 aircraft that it uses today. The airline now serves 65 destinations worldwide and employs more than 500 people based at various Swiss airports

Edelweiss Air

Image: / NYC Russ

Swiss Armed Forces

The mountain troops of the Swiss armed forces feature the edelweiss flower on their insignia, as several other military groups have throughout history. 

Edelweiss beer Edelweiss beer

Edelweiss and beer - what’s not to love?! This famous beer was born in the Austrian Alps in 1646 and was one of the world’s first wheat beers. The drink now comes in many flavours and is one of the most popular drinks in the Alps.

The beer is brewed with all-natural ingredients and even uses mountain herbs to give it a refreshing hint of the Alps. You can often find this beer for sale at Swiss ski resorts (as well as other ski resorts in the Alps), offering you the perfect alpine beverage to finish off a long day on the slopes!

Image: / TM Creations

Edelweiss flower tattoo

Many people love edelweiss so much that it has become a personal symbol of their homeland, with some Swiss even going so far as to tattoo the plant on their body. This way, edelweiss (and Switzerland) is always with you, no matter where you go! Fancy getting your own? Why not pop into a tattoo shop in your nearest Swiss city and see what the artists can do for you?


A post shared by WONI(워니) (@woni_plant)

Edelweiss all over the world

There are many other places across the globe inspired by Switzerland’s unofficial national flower. From the Edelweiss Bakery in the United States, to the Edelweiss restaurant in the Netherlands, the flower is the inspiration behind many people’s businesses, ideas and creative pursuits. 

Some more unusual things inspired by the flower across the world include: Edelweiss toilet paper used by the Wehrmacht in Nazi Germany and an insurance company called Edelweiss in India. Edelweiss has now spread much further than its Alpine home thanks to stories, songs, products and businesses, and hopefully, it will continue to bloom and grow forever. 

Emily Proctor


Emily Proctor

Emily grew up in the UK before moving abroad to study International Relations and Chinese. She then obtained a Master's degree in International Security and gained an interest in journalism....

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