You probably know shamrocks (Oxalis spp.) as cheerful green symbols of St. Patrick's Day. But shamrocks also make attractive and versatile garden plants, either planted in the ground or grown in pots. Several varieties are often called shamrocks, but the most common is a 4- to-6-inch tall plant also knows as wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella). It grows outdoors year-round in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 7, but you can also grow it in a container in colder areas, where it overwinters well indoors. When grown outdoors in optimal conditions the plant can have invasive habits.
During the Growing Season
A shamrock plant needs a regular supply of water during its growing season, which generally spans the spring, summer and early fall in most of its range. If your plant is in the ground, water it whenever the top 1 inch of soil feels dry to your fingertip. Add a 3-inch layer of organic mulch, such as shredded bark, around the plant to help conserve soil moisture, but keep it back a bit from the plant's stems to discourage growth of fungus.
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If you grow the shamrock in a container, never let its soil dry out. Check the soil's surface with your finger and water whenever it feels dry, allowing the pot to drain completely. Don't keep the pot in a saucer outdoors, because this can fill with water after a rain and promote growth of fungus.
Watering in Winter
When fall arrives, a shamrock becomes dormant, stopping its growth and losing its leaves. If you leave the plant in the ground during winter, don't water it. You can also dig up the small shamrock bulbs, let them dry for a day or two, and then store them indoors in a cool, dry spot until replanting them outdoors in spring.
If you bring a potted shamrock indoors for the winter, you can leave the bulbs in the pot, keeping it in a cool, dimly lit spot and stop watering once it becomes dormant and the leaves die back. Resume regular watering in early spring when you see the start of new growth.
If you leave a shamrock in the ground over winter, set a marker into the soil to indicate where the plant is so you won't damage it during spring planting.
Shamrock plants need regular fertilizing to support growth of foliage and their attractive white flowers. To promote heavy flowering, feed the plant with a 15-30-15 water-soluble formula that you dilute at a rate of 1 tablespoon per gallon of water, but also check your product label for further directions. Use the fertilizer solution in place of a regular water and fertilize the plant every two to three weeks while it's growing actively. Once the plant starts losing leaves at the end of the season, stop fertilizing until new growth begins the following spring.
Shamrock plant contain a compound called oxalic acid that can harmful when eaten in large quantities, so don't plant it in areas where children or pets play.
Shamrock plants grow best in partial to full shade and exposing them to too much sun could cause wilting or scorching of the leaves. If you grow them in containers, set them in the shifting shade under tall trees or in a spot that gets some morning sun, followed by shade.
These plants are usually trouble-free, but they might develop powdery mildew, which causes fluffy white areas on leaves and stems, or fungal leaf spots_,_ which appear as dark, soggy spots on the leaves. Prevent these problem by ensuring good air circulation; space plants at least 1 foot apart in the ground and keep potted plants separated. Watering at the plants base to keep leaves dry is also helpful.
When grown outdoors, shamrock plants are usually pest-free, although they might attract leaf miners, insects that tunnel between leaf surfaces, causing visible tracks in leaves. Control these by releasing parasitic wasps (Diglyphus isaea) that feed on the pests near the plants or by placing yellow sticky traps next to the plants to trap adult leaf miners before they lay eggs. Spider mites can also be a problem, but can be dislodged from the plant with a strong blast of water.
Joanne Marie began writing professionally in 1981. Her work has appeared in health, medical and scientific publications such as Endocrinology and Journal of Cell Biology. She has also published in hobbyist offerings such as The Hobstarand The Bagpiper. Marie is a certified master gardener and has a Ph.D. in anatomy from Temple University School of Medicine.