Beware the Saints de Glace

Beware the Saints de Glace

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Our guest writer Patrick Owen offers crucial garden advice, based on his French neighbours' timely warnings about the 'Saints de Glace'.

Spring is in the air, despite the occasional late snowstorm surprising the precocious spring flowers.  It’s time to think about getting the garden in order after its winter break.  My first attempt at a vegetable garden in France met with failure.  My tomato plants were all bitten by frost, withered and died.  Once they were nothing but a sad, brown tangle, a neighbour informed me, not without a touch of glee that I should have waited until after the ‘Saints de glace’ in May. 

Perhaps my rural neighbours were amused by my antics.  Here was an English-city dweller trying to create a ‘jardin potager’.  They had smugly watched as I dug over the patch of weed-infested land, which came with my house.  The land had lain abandoned for years, clearing it was back- breaking work.  The nettles and their friends had found time to establish deep and complex root systems.  As I dug, my spade clashed metallically against numerous stones and small rocks.  I turned up rusted pieces of metal and broken bottles.  A buried sheet of metal had me dreaming of lost treasure hordes, but all I found was rusted, unrecognisable lumps of metal.  Finally, after a lot of effort, the ground was prepared to receive the vegetable plants.

However, none of my neighbours came forward to warn me, as I planted my six healthy tomato plants.  On seeing the healthy looking plants on display in the garden centre, I had fallen into a trap.  Imagining myself self sufficient in vegetables, I bought the first healthy green tomato plants to appear in April.  I carefully planted them out, only to see them all frozen overnight.   The replacement plants, I had to buy, guaranteed a second income for my local garden centre.  The next year, heeding my neighbours warning about the ‘Saints de Glace’, I waited until the eleventh of May before planting out and I am happy to announce a bumper crop.

The ‘Saints de Glace’ is a piece of country wisdom in France, and other European countries.  Every year, between the 11th and 13th May, there is a cold spell.  Woe betides any foolish gardener who plants before these dates.  The Saints referred to are Saint Mamertus, Saint Pancras and Saint Servatuis.  Only the first seems to have had any connection with agriculture.  St Mamertus was archbishop of Vienna until his death in 475.  He introduced the ‘Rogation days’, just before Ascension, to bring blessings on the crops.  St Pancras, as well as having a station named after him, is the patron saint of children.  He was beheaded for his Christian beliefs at the age of 14 by the emperor Dioclétien.  The last, St Servatuis was Bishop of Tongres in Belgium before his death in 384.  Their names are associated with this cold snap because their Saint days fell on the 11th, 12th and 13th respectively.

Farmers and winemakers celebrated these Saints days, and begged the Saints to protect their crops.  In the 1960’s the Vatican, finding this practice rather pagan in its implications, changed the names of the Saint’s days. There is evidence that the blessing of crops goes back to pre- Christian Roman times.  The three days in May are now dedicated to Saints Estelle, Achille and Rolande, with no links to the popular beliefs.  However, the name change doesn’t seem to have eradicated the popular beliefs, and the ‘rogation’ prayers still exist.

There are, of course, scientific explanations for this late frost.  One is given by astrologists, who have remarked that the earth’s orbit takes it through a cosmic dust cloud at this time.  This dust cloud, so the theory goes, reduces the sun’s warming rays and cools the planet.  However meteorologists claim that this explanation is flawed because the cold spell is locally felt, whereas the astronomical dust cloud would cool the whole planet.  The meteorologists believe it has more to do with gulf streams and the change from winter to spring.  It has also been observed that the ‘Saints de Glace ‘now occurs some three weeks earlier than previously, testament perhaps to global warming.

I have since remarked that none of my neighbours plant before this date.  I now speak with authority of the risks of the dreaded ‘Saints de glace’.  Visiting garden centres, in March and April, I shake my head at the sight of young vegetable plants for sale.   As the saying goes, ‘Before Saint- Servatuis: no summer, after Saint- Servatuis : no more frost’.

Patrick Owen 


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