(Editor’s Note: Last weekend, roughly 70,000 shamrock plants filled some of Sunlet’s many greenhouses, but by Wednesday, almost all had been shipped out to garden centers and supermarkets, locally and throughout the western United States, according to Harry Jones of the San Diego Union Tribune. “They’ll be on their way to their forever home,” said Janet Kister, owner of Fallbrook’s 26-acre Sunlet Nursery. All of Sunlet’s business is wholesale. Much like their Christmas cactus in December and lilies in the Spring, the shamrock plants need to be shipped to retailers a couple weeks before St. Patrick’s Day to be available for purchase by the public. Jones apparently based his story on this one, written 20 years ago by Dan Weisman of the North County Times. For your pleasure, this is the original story of the San Diego County shamrocks you’ll be seeing next week at nurseries for St. Patrick’s Day.)
Never mind Mardi Gras. St. Patricks Day was rolling out the greenhouse doors of Sunlet Nursery on Tuesday in the form of shamrocks headed near and far, all the way to the Mississippi River and beyond.
“We start growing shamrocks around Super Bowl Sunday and start shipping the week after St. Valentines Day, but the heavy shipping is done this week,” said Janet Kister, who owns Fallbrook’s Sunlet Nursery with husband John.
This is the big week for shamrocks going to garden centers, supermarkets, florists and amusement parks. The Kisters are big fans of the shamrock and St. Patricks Day (March 17) for sentimental reasons almost as much as the business generated through sales.
“Shamrocks are only 2 percent of our sales,” Kister said. “It’s a quick holiday for us, while we grow our other indoor and flowering plants throughout the year.”
Fifteen years ago, when the Kisters started their Fallbrook operation, “Shamrocks were the very first crop we ever shipped, John Kister said. We sent them to a supermarket and they fell asleep,” Janet Kister continued. “They close up and go to sleep when they’re in a box, and all the leaves were drooping. We put little notes in the box: Shhhh … Were sleeping. Dont be alarmed. Set us up in the light and well wake up again. If you dont touch us, well go to sleep at night and perk up in the morning.”
North County shamrock growing is a highly competitive industry, believe it or not, so while Sunlet grows tens of thousands of shamrocks for St. Patricks Day pleasure, the Kisters were reluctant to let their competitors in Fallbrook, Encinitas and San Marcos have access to the exact amounts.
“They would love to know how many we grow, and wed love to know how many they grow,” Janet Kister said with a competitive laugh.
The Kisters now have a large Fallbrook operation with 20 acres, including 7 acres of outdoor crops such as potted carnations, 3 acres of shade houses and 3 acres of greenhouses, each greenhouse about 175,000 square feet in size. About 44,000 square feet were devoted to shamrocks, valued at $85,000 on the wholesale market.
Seasonal shamrocks come in several varieties
Including the traditional, dark green 3-inch-long triangular leaves with white flowers, and related varieties with green and silver spotted foliage and lavender flowers. Not to mention the purple shamrocks hidden away in a top-secret growing area.
By all accounts, Sunlet is the leading shamrock grower in the area and one of the leaders in the state and the nation, with the only significant competition coming from a few growers in Santa Barbara and Half Moon Bay.
Sunlet sends along 4-inch shamrocks that wholesale for around $1.45 each and 6-inch shamrocks that wholesale for around $3.99 each. Retail prices tend to be double, or more, depending on presentation, shipping costs and other market factors.
“We’ve got the moderate climate here that works to our benefit in growing shamrocks, Kister said. “That’s why we can afford to grow the plants here, box them and ship them to Memphis (Tenn.) when there are other growers in Memphis. What we grow here is called florist quality.”
Shamrock sales this weekend in anticipation of the big day on March 17 are going to climb through the greenhouse roof, according to Marsha Adams, greenhouse manager for Andersons La Costa Nursery, a 45-year institution in North County, that gets its shamrocks from Sunlet.
“They do a wonderful job,” Adams said of the Sunlet variety. “We sell the 4-inch shamrocks for $3.99 and 6-inch green shamrocks for $5.99. The purple ones are $7.99 for a 6-inch cup and we sell a lot of them. Shamrocks bring good luck, you know, and theyre a very long-lasting, seasonal plant.”
Yes, once purchased, do try to grow the shamrocks at home, the professional growers say. This is a really good house-plant, said John Kister, who has a masters degree in agriculture from UC Davis and supervises the growing operations that account for many of the nursery’s 70 employees, including the very first employee the Kisters hired.
People keep them for years in their windowsills. But thats after the shamrock makes it to the consumer. Taking the rhizomes, or small stems that bear shoots, and growing the plants from scratch is tricky and takes a professionals touch, Kister said.
Sunlet grows a lot of unusual varieties, which gives us a little bit of an edge, said Janet Kister, who earned a masters degree in business from Pepperdine University and met her husband while both were working at an Orange County nursery.
Starting with 5 acres at Fallbrook in 1985, Sunlet has been expanding ever since and grows everything from amaryllis, cala-dium, carnations and Christmas cactus to herbs, sunflowers, and pink polka-dot plants, otherwise known as Hypoestes Splash.
But its those darn shamrocks that make this time of the year so special for the folks at Sunlet Nursery, where the Kisters let the sun come in while shamrocks fly out the door this week.
Shamrocks are what St. Patrick used to teach the trinity because of the three leaves, Janet Kister said, adding that the official name for shamrocks is Oxalis regnelli. It was a sacred plant there. Now everybody is Irish for that day and along with their corned beef and cabbage and green beer, they go get a shamrock. ‘
Looking across a sea of shamrock green with tiny white and purple flowers poking through, Kister added: Since everybody is Irish for St. Patricks Day, our goal is to sell 270 million shamrocks so everyone will have one”.