The End of the Ice Saints

Yesterday I planted a last batch of sweet alyssum on my balcony.  Every scrap of space in my pots and boxes is filled. From now until the end of October, I can sit back, water, and watch the flowers grow.

Most of my flower-planting, however, I did off and on between May 7 and May 15, which meant breaking a Swiss (and German) gardening tradition: Never plant a frost-sensitive plant until after May 15, also known as Cold Sophie, the last of the so-called ice saints’ days.

Saint Sophia of Rome with Faith, Hope, and Charity

In Switzerland, there are four ice saints (Eisheiligen), whose name days fall on May 12, 13, 14, and 15.  The first is Saint Pancras, the saint you should pray to if you want to get a good job; he can also be invoked against headaches. The second ice saint is Servatius, who is sometimes portrayed with three wooden shoes; if rats or mice invade your house, call on him for help. Next comes Saint Boniface of Tarsus; he was supposedly martyred by being boiled in tar. (Sorry—don’t think about it.) The last is Saint Sophia, who is responsible for good harvests. Northern Germany has a fifth ice saint’s day on May 11, which is sacred to Mamertus. He can be invoked against drought, a calamity which is becoming increasingly relevant in the center and north of Europe rather than just the south.

A reliquary containing the skeleton of a man considered to be Saint Pancras, displayed in the Catholic Church of St. Nikolaus in Wil, Switzerland

And here’s the gardeners’ rule: Vor Bonifaz kein Sommer, nach der Sophie kein Frost. No summer before Boniface, no frost after Sophie.

It’s a charming idea, and during the many years I’ve planted summer flowers on my balcony, I’ve usually waited until after Cold Sophie to begin. But the truth is, it no longer matters. Climate change has made the ice saints almost irrelevant to Swiss city dwellers like me. Admittedly, last year in 2021, May 12 through 15 were colder than usual, with May 14, Saint Boniface Day, dropping down to 36° F (2° C).  But as the world warms, the chance of a frost in Bern in mid-May continues to dwindle. This May, the coldest of the ice saints was the first one, Saint Pancras—but the weather in Bern only went down to 48° F (9° C), so no danger of frost there. By Cold Sophie we’d reached a high of 82° F (28° C)!

All over the world, climate change is causing drought, famine, deadly fires, and vicious storms. I can’t help mourning the way folk-wisdom is also falling victim to the warming planet—and to human beings’ inability to accept that without short-term sacrifice, our long-term lives will be hell.

So even though I’m enjoying Bern’s warm, sunny May this year, I confess I won’t mind if there’s a touch of frost next year sometime between the twelfth and fifteenth of May. Perhaps that would keep the ice saints’ relevance alive for another couple of years.

Geraniums, verbena, sweet alyssum, and blue salvia

The photographs of Saint Sophia and Saint Pancras were found in Wikipedia and are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

2 thoughts on “The End of the Ice Saints

  1. Once again, a blogpost full of new and interesting information. It’s like a masterclass in swissness. Balcony looks amazing, the colours are stunning and the alyssum won’t know what hit them once the salvia hits its stride.

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    1. Thanks so much, Melina–I’m glad you enjoy the posts so much. And, you’re absolutely right, I tend to stuff my boxes when the plants are small, thinking I can get away with it. By July I’ll probably have to give the bigger plants more space. Oh well, I’ll cross that bridge then!

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