Geneva's rite of spring: you may think the first day of spring is March 21, but in Geneva you'd be wrong. Here it is marked by the appearance of the first bud on an 'official' chestnut tree.

AuteurMangold-Vine, Gail

Since 1818, spring in Geneva begins when the first bud appears on the official chestnut tree, marked with a plaque, on the Promenade de la Treille in the city's Old Town.

The occasion is known as l'eclosion or 'the budding'. The same chestnut tree--there have been two predecessors--has been on duty since 1929, and 2004 marks its 75th anniversary of service.

In charge of monitoring the tree, and declaring the start of spring, is the 'sautier', an official of the Geneva cantonal government, who works at the nearby Hotel de Ville, already a seat of government in the 15th century.

What Is a 'Sautier'?

In pleasantly accented French Austrian-born Maria Anna Hutter, who has occupied the position since 1999, explains that 'sautier' comes from the Latin 'saltarius' (also 'saltuarius' or 'salterius'), which means a kind of grounds watchman. Geneva's first 'sautier' was appointed in 1483, and in those days the Treille was not landscaped. It was just a natural bit of terrain with grapevines growing on it. 'Sautier' Lupi Tissot was asked to make a first landscaping attempt by planting trees. That was in 1558.

"The 'sautier' was a kind of concierge," says Hutter, "making sure that building and grounds were maintained and operational." A sculpted wood lion stool dating from the 15th century, no longer used but on proud display In the Hotel de Ville's magnificent frescoed State Council room, was where the sautier sat outside the door--like a lion's "the 'sautier's' eyes are all-seeing," says Hutter.

Hutter is the 73rd person and second woman to hold this post. Except for a brief discontinuation during Napoleon's occupation of Geneva, the post has survived, although nowadays the 'sautier' is the secretary/general of Geneva's Grand Council, organising the plenary sessions and commission meetings, ensuring that correct procedural requirements are fulfilled in sessions, and publishing records of them such as the 'Memorial'.

Early Beginnings

Monitoring the first budding and pronouncing the start of spring is relatively new to the job description--a mere 172 years old. In fact, it dates from 1831 when Henri Fromont took over from the Initiator of the practice, 'sautier' Theodore-Marc Paul.

The first person to record the budding of a chestnut tree on the Treille was not a 'sautier', but a patrician resident of nearby me des Granges, Marc-Louis Rigaud-Martin. Although hypotheses differ as to why he began the practice, "it was probably purely a personal interest, a...

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