No, it’s not edelweiss.
I mean, edelweiss is pretty and all, and it’s about as Swiss as you can get—it’s the penultimate alpine flower: “small and white, clean and bright” dah-dee-dah, dah-dee, dah-dah. Yeah.
While the Sound of Music anthem has forced us to praise a flower that most of us have never seen, I take issue with the way Broadway has limited one of Switzerland’s most spectacular plants to nothing more than an over-sung saccharine ditty. Also, I’m not loving how the song “Edelweiss” has attached edelweiss to Austria, when in fact, the flower grows like a weed in the high alps of Switzerland.
Edelweiss (Leontopodium alpinum) is a high altitude flower and is rare in that it tends to grow in places that people can’t get to very easily (which makes me love it even more). I was fortunate enough to see some edelweiss growing at heights of about 2,100 meters (6,720 ft) as they were just coming into bloom in July.
I also saw plenty of it among the flower boxes of Engadin. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned how seriously the Swiss take their flower boxes, but they do, and I was ecstatic to find so many of these boxes stuffed with fluffy stalks of soft white edelweiss.
That’s another thing the song fails to mention—edelweiss is very soft, and covered with a velvety fuzz that makes you think you’re actually petting a newborn kitten’s ears. They are lovely, lovely flowers—
—but they are not my favorite flower. No.
My favorite flower in Switzerland is the Holunder, or elderflower.
It grows small or in big bush-like trees and if you know what it looks like, you’ll find it. It has shapely green leaves and a tuft of tiny white flowers which slowly turn into dark black berries. The wood and berries are actually just a little bit poisonous (!) until they ripen. Then you can eat them.
Ricola uses a minimum blend of 13 different herbs for each of their little drops, one of which is elderflower, but the Swiss seem to put elderflower in the most remarkable foods and drink. In one week, I ate elderflower sorbet, sucked on elderflower candies, tasted elderflower chocolates, sipped elderflower syrup and smelled elderflower perfume. I was also introduced to the popular Swiss summer cocktail “Hugo”: prosecco, elderflower syrup, mineral water, mint and lime.
I think there is no other flavor more divine than elderflower essence on the tongue. Such a wondrous scent and taste will always remind me of Switzerland, for where else can you go for visit and drink the flowers?
While elderflower is common through central Europe, it’s sacred in Switzerland.
“Holunderblüten is holy,” one Swiss farmer told me, quite seriously.
“You should never destroy a Holunder plant. It brings bad luck,” he added. In Engadin, women gather up the berries from the flowers at the tops of the plants from which they distill pure elderflower syrup. I bought one bottle at the evening market of Pontresina and cared for it like a fragile antique, wrapping it up in soft cloth and stowing it gently in my suitcase labelled “Fragile.”
All the way back to America, I worried—feared that I would get home and unzip my bag only to find a sock of shattered glass and clothes sticky and smelling like a Swiss summer day. But no, the elderflower is a holy plant, and my packed-away bottle held its liquid white-gold treasure all the way across the Atlantic until it was opened and drunk in the safety of my very own kitchen.