Pink Moon & The Ice Saints

Posted on: 27 May 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Our ex-pat in France tries to follow French garden folklore.

The Saints de Glace have been and gone and everyone throughout rural France it seems is busy planting out gardens with impunity.

Happily, I no longer confuse the dreaded “Ice Saints” with seins de glace, which translates as frozen breasts. In my naivety, I believed that this was a vernacular equivalent of “brass monkeys”: shorthand, in other words, for unseasonably cold weather.

I now know better. Anyone here will tell you that the three Ice Saints, Mamert, Pancrace and Servais, wreak their meteorological havoc on the 11th, 12th and 13th May. Equating gardeners’ jitters with pagan superstitions, the Catholic Church tried, as recently as 1960 to install Estelle, Achille and Rolande as a more pukka trinity.

But whoever is to blame, nocturnal temperatures can plummet at this time – spelling death to seedlings and fragile young plants.

When in Rome and all that, so early on, we realised that our Sheffield horticulture had little relevance in the Corrèze, and so ever since, we’ve mimicked the locals. Hence, we take note of the Saints de Glace and their ilk, and try to be guided by the moon.

It isn’t easy. We’re not yet sufficiently steeped in the folklore. When, for example, was the ideal moment for sowing our front lawn? An ascendant moon for the good of the shoots, or a descendant moon for the strength of the roots?

Just to complicate matters, the Saints de Glace coincide with what’s known as a lune rousse. For years, we blamed a “Russian” moon for rogue spring weather until we learned that the word derives from “roussir” which means to turn brown. The first lunar cycle after Easter coincides with a period when cold clear nights can increase lunar visibility and turn new shoots brown.

A “pink moon” is the nearest British counterpart, and some would say that the seasonal perturbations are all to do with the earth’s orbital trajectory in relation to a heavenly band of dust that may or may not derive from the formation of planets. Perhaps.

I doubt if such concerns ever troubled either of my grandfathers as they contentedly pottered their retirements away, one among his beds, the other in his green house. As a young child, I would watch them at work, oblivious of course, to the notion that one day I might be old, retired and at peace with a garden.

The march of time proved me wrong on two counts, but “serenity” is not something I associate with gardening. Since moving to France, to faire le jardin has meant a constant battle with brambles and the Sisyphean labour of moving stones from one spot to another and fighting off the attentions of wild grass with a lone strimmer.

And yet… as I survey the patchy beginnings of a lawn, the outlines of a herb bed and a bank that we’ve transformed into a kind of elongated rock garden, I can almost envisage my wife and me, pottering merrily away, side by side in our dotage.

But then I look upon the weeds and despair. Five weeks of heavy showers and intermittent sunshine – the work, no doubt, of that pink Russian moon – have unleashed Mother Nature. All is fecundity. After the post-Christmas dearth of fresh foodstuff, the local markets are replete with bundles of asparagus and punnets of strawberries.

Considering the horticultural folklore and the way they stick like dandelion sap to the lunar calendar, it’s maybe surprising that locals don’t make more of the Ice Saints’ passing. A communal meal, perhaps, or a dance around some fertility symbol. It’s true, though, that this time of year is dotted with local events like flower festivals and the annual jamboree at Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne to glorify the strawberry. And I think it’s true, too, that they’re better than us Brits at marking the passage of the seasons with what’s on the meal-table.

I’m not a natural gardener. Houseplants give me quite enough headaches. As a utilitarian glutton, however, what really excites me about the prospect of a garden is the idea of growing our own produce. Nothing tastes quite as good. Once we’re in production, I may just leave the Saints de Glace annual tributes like little bundles of fresh radishes – in the hope that they will leave our seedlings unscathed.

Mark Sampson, May 2008

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