What is the reproductive cycle of Edelweiss?

          Rather surprisingly, botanists did not adequately understand the Leontopodium alpinum reproductive cycle for around one hundred years after its formal discovery, most likely due to the plant’s remote location in the mountains. Even today, it is difficult to declare that everything can be known about any organism out there. Regardless, Edelweiss is undoubtedly a flower that uses insects to pollinate and reproduce. While there is debate over the number of insects that are able to physically visit these plants because of their high altitude, there is no research completed yet that can adequately dismiss this claim.

            In order to pollinate flowers, insects must be attracted to a plant, and smell is an important sense utilized in this ecological relationship. Through research, the scent of Edelweiss’s nectar is considered to be both “honey-like and sweat-like” (Erhardt 1992). Insects are generally drawn to sweet smells, so it is likely that while the honey-like smell is welcoming, the sweat-like one is disagreeable for many insects. Another element to consider in whether insects (and what types) visit Leontopodium alpinum is the environment and weather. The insects must be able to survive quite cold and dry climates and not be meticulous over potential snow and wind. The most common visitors to the plant, according to Erhardt’s research, appear to be the Muscidae (see Interactions).

 Courtesy of Dr. Amadej Trnkoczy

            When insects visit the plant, they land in the center of a clone and travel in a circular path around the flowering section (Erhardt 1992). The flies often use the bracts to travel between one set of inflorescences to the other, rather than flying the short distance between. Flies can stay on one clone for up to fifteen minutes, a rather lengthy period, and the number of pollen grains each can carry varies significantly between individuals and species (Erhardt 1992). Therefore, just a few insects can be responsible for more than half the number of pollen grains a plant receives (Erhardt 1992). When considering how many pollen grains an insect can carry, it is also interesting to look into how insects are able to hold these grains. Incredibly, insects can carry pollen grains all over their body, including their legs, head, mouth, etc. Through Erhardt’s research, most of the pollen grains were found on the legs, but they were centralized on the head as well, and can essentially be found anywhere, just with less regularity. It is also crucial to recognize that the insects that pollinate Edelweiss do not do so singularly; they also carry pollen grains for other plants and are able to pollinate them in a similar manner.

             While there is still much debate on how often and what species of insects are able to pollinate Edelweiss because of environmental restrictions, research suggests that the pollination of one larger clone is enough to produce an adequate set of seedlings. Leontopodium alpinum is generally a high producer of seeds, and this is most likely an evolutionary advantage because of the other restrictions that exist in Edelweiss's ability to reproduce (Erhardt 1992).

            As briefly mentioned already, members of the fly family Muscidae are believed to be the main contributors pollinating Edelweiss. This is depicted in Erhardt’s research, and highlighted by two main factors—they are the most common visitors and carried more pollen grains than smaller insects (of different families). These flies are likely attracted to Edelweiss because of the smell, as well as the white, hairy bracts, which may glisten in the sunlight. The nectar is also typical of plants that have fly pollinators—“rich in hexose and with a high amino acid concentration” (Erhardt 1992).

             Leontopodium alpinum is a plant that can reproduce sexually or asexually through pollination with the help of several different insects. The offspring produced are thus sometimes identical to the parent, and while mutations can occur to alter the genetic makeup, such mutations are rare and random. Pollination is an effective means for the reproduction of Edelweiss, but the plant is still protected in many areas of the world for a number of different reasons (see Interesting Facts).

              I hope this page has provided you with ample information about the way Leontopodium alpinum reproduces, and has been helpful in any way. Keeping in mind that insects are the main contributor to successful reproduction of the Edelweiss plant, the species also interacts with other organisms.

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Please see the References page for information about where this data was aqcuired.

Written by Lizzy Wlodyga