Would Switzerland be Switzerland without cheese, chocolate, clocks, or those red flowers that drip from wooden chalets and concrete balconies? Every May, the Alpine geranium enthusiasts shift into high gear as diligent housewives across the nation set up their millions of pots for the summer. Seen from the tourist bus, that mass of gay flora may look effortless, but behind it is a time-consuming devotion to punctilious watering, weeding, pruning, and fertilizing.
Dozens of strange recipes are handed down through the generations on the ins and outs of geranium care. Boiled egg shells, dried steer's blood, filtered coffee dregs, and poultry dung are touted as wonder fertilizers.
Josi Meyer has at least 50 windows and niches in her 300-year-old chalet in the lakeside village of Merlischachen, all blooming with red geraniums. Her key to beautiful blossoms: ''You have to be very calm when near them. Mine were not nearly so lovely when I was hard-worked and nervous.''
Competition between housewives for the best geraniums in Merlischachen is fierce. Says Josef Seeholzer, who runs a village hotel boasting 450 pink and red plants: ''There is a lot of jealousy around.''
No other European country spends nearly as much on potted and cut flowers as the Swiss - around $45 per capita annually. In second place, West Germany gives out an estimated 13 percent less. Swiss buy around 12 million geranium plants a year, an amount that in no way represents the actual number hanging. For Swiss with green thumbs reuse their plants year after year, leaving them for the winter in cellars.
Each year, hundreds of geranium markets usher in summer. Josef Seeholzer runs the Merlischachen mart where, he says, ''Geraniums sell like salad.'' Nationwide geranium sales have more than doubled in a decade.
Josef Poffit of the Swiss Master Gardeners' Association thinks it has a lot to do with the ''green'' movement. He believes that ''people prefer geraniums to cement.''
For Hans Studer, who runs a prison farm in Canton Lucerne, they have a psychological value: ''The prisoners look after them and it gives them something to care for.''
Zurich psychologist Katie Spillmann adds: ''Geraniums are the Swiss housewife's way of showing off in a country where showing off is normally taboo. There is also the feeling around that a house with flowers is a cared-for house housing a cared-for family. This can put quite a lot of pressure on a housewife to have them even if she does not want to.''
However, in Zurich - the country's biggest and busiest city - there is some fear that a beautiful tradition is fading a little. Gardener Jurg Graencher regrets that many owners of apartment buildings object to their tenants having geraniums because they ''dirty the walls.''
Also, young people in Zurich have so many possibilities for filling their free time that they often ''cannot be bothered with geraniums. Such a pity.'' The city encourages those willing with a competition and prizes.
The flower, which has almost become a Swiss national symbol, is not even Swiss. It first came to Europe from South Africa in the 18th century.
The Swiss took to it because the hardy bloom satisfied their practical bent. The geranium defies almost all weather and blossoms all summer long.