Mar./Apr. 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Ron Miller
Photos by Casey Anderson
St. Patrick's Day plants get their start in Southern California nursery
Janet Kister has been growing shamrocks for more than 25 years. Demand for the plant continues to increase, she says, because “everybody wants to be Irish for St. Patrick's Day.” She and her husband John sell three varieties of shamrocks.
Imagine, if you will, a greenhouse lined with purple-leafed shamrocks as far as the eye can see. Next to them are tables loaded with the more traditional green variety, while red flowers peek out from green-leafed shamrocks sporting burgundy centers.
For Janet and John Kister, there's no need to imagine the scene. They see it about this time every year at Sunlet Nursery in Fallbrook, where they've been growing shamrocks for more than 25 years.
"When we are at the peak of shamrocks, it is quite the sight to see," Janet Kister said of the late-winter occurrence.
Sunlet Nursery specializes in growing indoor flowering plants and selected foliage plants for wholesale customers throughout the United States. Since opening their business in 1985, the couple has noted an increase in the popularity of shamrocks, said to be one of the tools St. Patrick used in the fifth century to convert the Irish to Christianity.
"Everybody likes shamrocks. Everybody wants to be Irish for St. Patrick's Day," Kister said. "It is nice to grow plants that will make people happy and that people are looking forward to every year."
The iron cross shamrock is a four-leafed plant with burgundy centers in the green leaves. Its flowers are red.
December or January is when the workers at Sunlet Nursery start the shamrocks that will be sent to market for St. Patrick's Day. Bulbs called rhizomes are planted in pots and given the care they need. Sunlet sells shamrocks to florists, grocery stores and other retailers as far away as the Midwest. To get plants to retailers in time for them to arrange displays, the nursery begins shipping shamrocks around Valentine's Day. Customers in California and nearby states receive their supplies closer to the March 17 holiday.
"We like to have different seasons, so this is a nice seasonal plant," said Kister, who also serves on the California Farm Bureau board of directors. "We will change over from other crops to raise shamrocks for St. Patrick's Day and then we will be out of them."
The purple shamrock features three purple leaves and a lavender flower on top.
San Diego County is the nation's No. 1 producer of nursery crops. Kister notes that of these crops, the shamrock is not an easy one to grow.
"It is a little tricky," she said. "It does need special nutrients, so as growers we need to be testing our soil all the time, testing our water to see what fertilizer requirements it needs."
In addition, shamrocks grow best with only a little water. Interestingly, the plant folds its leaves up at night or if it is disturbed. What can happen, Kister said, is that workers may go into the greenhouse in the morning and all the leaves will be closed. And while it might look like the shamrocks need water, the folding is actually just the plant's reaction to low light. Some workers might be tempted to water them to bring them back.
The traditional green shamrock has three green leaves and a white flower.
"If you overwater the plant, it damages the root system and then it will never grow right," Kister said. However, with proper care, shamrocks can last long after St. Patrick's Day.
"Keep the plant inside in a sunny place," she advised. Water it regularly but carefully until fall. Then allow it to dry down and store it in a cool, dry, dark place until December, when the bulb should again be watered so that it blooms again by March 17.
"The plants are dormant in Ireland during winter and need a downtime as houseplants," she said.
Ron Miller is a reporter for California Country. He can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.