Human Flower Project


After spending the summer in the Alps, dairy cows descend into villages dressed for festivity.


Dairy cows with floral hats arrive in Mels, Switzerland

Photo: Arno Balzarini, for AP

“See you in September” has spectacular meaning in towns like Gruyere, Switzerland, and Weissach, Germany. When fall nips summer in the Alps, it’s time to bring the cows off the mountain, a glorious festival known as Desalpe in Switzerland. Leah Larkin explores this custom in a fine article published today in Stars and Stripes.

She writes that herdsmen mostly let their cows mingle during the summer months, but by September it’s time for viehscheid, German for “separating the cattle.” (In Texas, land of beef cattle, we call this a “roundup.”) After gathering his herd, each stockman then guides his cows to the village.


Viehscheid, in Germany

Photo: Schwangau

“One cow from each owner’s herd is chosen to be the Kranzkuh (wreath cow) and wears an especially elaborate headdress. It’s usually a good-looking specimen who is docile enough to tolerate the huge decoration around its head and neck. Many of the colorful wreathlike headgear include a small mirror to ward off evil spirits.

“If misfortune has befallen a group of cows during the summer, such as a death or injury, that owner is not permitted the honor of having a Kranzkuh in his herd. At Weissach, of the 14 herds that paraded, only one was minus a Kranzkuh. All of the cattle are weighted down with an enormous bell, and many are decorated in greenery. Some groups even have a few goats or horses mixed in.”

The cattle drive begins before dawn, but once the animals have paraded down into their respective villages, a walk that takes several hours, it’s time for eating, drinking, and general oom-pah. Larkin’s story includes a long list of these festivals taking place from now through mid-October. 


Photo: Allgaeu

There are, of course, regional variations. In Austria, the tradition is known as Almabtrieb, and in at least some Austrian towns, herdsmen seem to favor feathers as well as flowers for cow-garb. German dairymen have a penchant for encircling Christian icons with flowers and posting this whole apparatus on the big flat foreheads of their heifers. The Swiss Desalpe, known in some dialects as “Rindya,” seems to stick with flowers. We find the chapeaux above especially sporty.

So many European flower festivals are spring things, but here’s a magnificent exception. Summer flowers are putting on their final show, and the fat herds of the Alps somehow display those blooms better than Waterford crystal.

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