Take a look around. Plants are greening up for spring. Avocado trees are putting out light green flowers. Other plants are responding to longer days of sunlight by producing new shoots of bright green foliage, and grassy lawns are getting greener in response to some early spring rains. It’s also about time to check your closet for some green garb to wear next Sunday, in honor of St. Patrick and Ireland.
St. Patrick was a real person. Born in A.D. 385, today he is the most recognized patron saint of Ireland. An official feast day in his honor was established by the church in the early 17th century and has become more of a secular holiday to celebrate Irish culture. Green attire and shamrocks are worn by many in and beyond Ireland to celebrate what has become the Irish national holiday.
The shamrock is a three-leaf clover St. Patrick supposedly used to teach the religious trinity. No concrete evidence of this use of the shamrock exists, though religious images implying this link began to appear in the 16th century. Over the years, the shamrock has become more of a secular symbol of Ireland, however, with associations beyond those originally presumed.
There is not a consensus over the precise botanical species of the “true” shamrock. Two botanical surveys have been conducted almost 100 years apart with similar results. In 1988, 46 percent of Irish citizens identified the shamrock as Trifolium dubium, or lesser clover, while 35 percent identified it as Trifolium repens, or white clover. Though several other species got votes, none got more than 7 percent. Though all of the clovers considered are common European species, none is unique to Ireland. Seeds of all the species are available online and, this time of year, you may even find shamrock plants in local nurseries or plant shops.
The wearing of shamrocks along with matching green uniforms by Irish armed forces is traditional, but the background for this custom is unclear. Accounts about Ireland by English writers in the 16th century reported that shamrocks were eaten by the Irish. Though minimal evidence of shamrock eating exists, this report helped establish the shamrock as a symbol of Ireland.
Other early edible references implied that shamrocks were often steeped in whiskey and eaten. This reference probably originated with the annual custom of toasting St. Patrick’s memory by “drowning the shamrock” March 17. The tradition involved lifting the usual fasting restrictions of Lent, repairing to the nearest tavern after Mass on St. Patrick’s Day and marking the occasion by drinking “St. Patrick’s Pots.” The drowning of the shamrock was accompanied by a certain amount of ritual and sometimes involved the consumption of numerous shamrocks. Unless you grow your own shamrocks from seed, be cautious about carrying on this tradition unless you are sure the plants have not been sprayed with insecticides.
If you aren’t following the Irish tradition of eating drowned shamrocks or the American one of drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, you might want to spend some green for some alternative green to include in your garden. With the spring equinox coming up soon, we have lots of encouragement to get into a planting mood. Though our rainy season isn’t due to start for another month, now is a good time to get plants in the ground for spring and summer gardens.
You can take several approaches to greening your garden. If you want to start from seed, you might want to take a look at seed catalogs and try some new varieties. A 2007 Mother Earth News article remains an excellent source for seed companies with a good selection of open-pollinated and organic vegetable and herb seeds. Find it at motherearthnews.com/Organic-Gardening/2007-11-01/Best-Garden-Seed- Companies.aspx#axzz2Mdah6uSL.
Many herbs and ornamentals can also be easily propagated from existing plants. Friends and neighbors are often willing to share cuttings, which can add to your garden greenery at low cost.
Of course, a quicker way to green your landscape is to find plants at a local store or nursery and install them. Some local suppliers carry interesting varieties. Look for them and enjoy getting your green on.
Tropical gardening helpline
Danielle asks: I want to grow citrus trees on my property at 4,000 feet elevation. Any suggestions for the best choices for our location?
Answer: Most citrus trees qualify as subtropical plants. If you can protect your trees from frost, most varieties will grow at your elevation. The more sun and heat they get, the better tasting the fruit will be, so choose your planting spot carefully.
Avoid planting tender tropical or subtropical plants in valleys at upper elevations. Even a shallow dip in the landscape will collect cold air, so find a somewhat protected spot that is on a higher area of your land. If you have a south- or west-facing wall that gets full sun and holds heat, planting the trees near that wall will provide a welcome heat source for them.
Considering all these factors in choosing a site, and selecting a variety that has a cooler temperature tolerance will help your trees thrive. Most lemon and lime varieties sold here will do fine at your elevation. Meyer lemons and Tahitian limes are slightly more cold tolerant than other lemon and lime varieties.
In choosing oranges, Jamie at Plant-It Hawaii recommends the Satsuma mandarin and a navel orange for your elevation. Satsuma is a very cold-tolerant mandarin orange but the fruit should be picked when ripe as it does not hold well on the tree. The Washington navel is well-adapted to Hawaii. It has been grown commercially for years in the southern part of the Big Island and is known locally as the Ka‘u orange.
If you want to venture into more exotic citrus, you might want to consider kumquats or Buddha’s hand citrons. Both are somewhat cold tolerant. The small fruit of the kumquat as well as the thin skin of mandarins known as tangerines can make the fruit particularly sensitive to very cold weather or even a light frost. Thic- skinned grapefruit like pommel might do well in a warm, sunny location, but the ruby varieties will produce better flavor and color at lower elevations. The blood orange will also not produce its red flesh color unless it is grown in a warmer area with lots of hot sun.
The good news is you can grow some citrus successfully as long as you choose your planting site and varieties carefully.
Email plant questions to firstname.lastname@example.org for answers by certified master gardeners. Some questions will be chosen for inclusion in this column.
Diana Duff is an organic farmer, plant adviser and consultant.