March 17, 2010

Bells of Ireland, They're magically delicious! ( but, they're from Turkey)

I don’t know about you, but somehow I associate Bells of Ireland with those other annuals that we always dream of growing but never really do, and for what ever reason, I lump them together with Kochia, the Fire Bush, Cardinal Flower ( Ipomoea horstfalliae) and other rarely grown 'common' annuals, or, as I like to call them - “Those Annuals with the photos they never have updated in thirty years that we never really grow”. (But, secretly, I want to). And so, this year, I will.

But where to start?

I've tried growing Bells of Ireland in the past, even started some in the greenhouse once, but never really had luck. Not surprising, since here is the moment of truth. I get lazy with the easy stuff. Mainly annuals. I'm embarrassed to admit this, but it's not unusual for me to just order loads of seed, and sow it in big flats, without researching exactly what is required to get a certain species to grow perfectly. Only recently have I really started researching in exacting detail what some plants require culturally, but mostly, I exercise this research with rare bulb seed, alpines and perennials, since they are far more challenging ( and expensive), and the rewards of growing something from seed which is challenging is quite exciting. But for whatever reason, I never really read the details on the common annuals and vegetables, and I imagine that that is what many of us do - the assumption that 'common' equates with 'easy'. Not true.

My policy with this blog, is to only write about plants which I have grown, or have experience with growing, for there are far too many garden writers who simply Google the cultural requirements, yet they have never grown the plant themselves. the plant itself is far from new, however, since there are records of it being grown as far back as 1570, but it is rarely seen in gardens today. So, to be honest, I am writing this a year too early in some respects, since I am still trying to master Molucella laevis, the Bells of Ireland and to become a promoter of it lovely, green bracts which will add a well needed green in contemporary gardens today.

Apparently, in order to get Molucella laevis grown to cultural perfection, it is best to forget everything written and follow the only proven method that I know of, and that is to sow the seeds in the grown, where they are to grow, for like many plants from the Caucasus, they form a long tap root, and any divergence of this root in a pot, will cause the seedlings to stump, and will rarely let the plants reach the 4 foot magnificence which they can be. So ignore those seed packets that advise that you start seeds 6-8 weeks indoors before planting out. You will be disappointed. Most important, the seeds need light to germinate, and at least three weeks of cold weather near freezing, so March and Early April is the only time to sow in Zone 5, and careful tending will be required to keep birds and Irish Terriers from digging up the seed before it sprouts. Once germinated, the weaker seedlings can be ( must be) pulled out and put to sleep, for there is no replanting plants with tap roots ( like carrots).

Once established, you may end up with self seeded 'volunteers' and those will most likely, grow the best, as plants that are self seeded tend to do. They seem to perform best in the vegetable garden, for not only is the soil there more friable and deep, you will be able to keep any competitive weeds down, and, the plants themselves are hard to integrate into planting schemes. If you can find seeds for the other species, Molucella spinosa, (let me know and sell them to me!) you must grow it, for at 7 feet tall and sparkling red spines, I believe that it is far more impressive ( but very rare).
Molucella spinosa

Since green flowers are now very stylish, I have to master these annuals since very few flowers ( or bracts) come in true green. There is Nicotiana langsdorfii, a flowering tobacco with tiny, pendant bells which we love to grow ( and let self seed everywhere), and, a couple of Zinnia cultivars, mainly one called 'Envy', which can yellow a bit if it gets too much sun. But what I am finding in the great blogosphere - No, the entire Internet, is that there is all sorts of advice on mastering Bells of Ireland, most of it contradicts each other, which is not uncommon with something which is rarely grown, since 'borrowed' information is easily shared, and rarely proven wrong. And so it is, with the cultural requirement for Bells of Ireland.

To start with, there are two species of Molucella, and neither are from Ireland, in fact, the only thing 'Irish' about Bells of Ireland is their color. Green. The species are native to the Caucasus Mountains of western Asia, which excites me since this is an area of the world that I am fascinated with, since the bulbs and alpine plants are highly prized by many plant geeks at the moment.

Bells of Ireland, or Molucella laevis is a popular commercial flower crop in Israel,and China, which grows most of the worlds florist stock. But if you want to grow it at home, it's a little more challenging. It is best to sow seeds early, but there are some requirements, mainly, they plants hate any root disturbance, and they germinate best after a cold treatment once planted int he soil. If you live in California, you can sow the seed outdoors when it is still cool, but here in New England, they will need an early start indoors, which is risky, since they also prefer to grow where they are sown. This slight complexity is why many seed packets offer confusing directions - sow outdoors as the preferred method, or start indoors and transplant out just after the last frost, yet the seedling do not want to be transplanted.....so what to do?

Of the two species, Molucella laevis is the more attractive and taller of the two specie, while Molucella spinosa being less showy. M. laevis, now available in some different forms that are dwarfer, have fresh green, unusual, quite large, cup-like bracts from late summer through autumn.There are some wild collection made in Anjar, Beka'a plains, Lebanon, Syria and others from Turkey. The Genus name comes from the Molucca Islands in Indonesia, where the seeds were first thought to have come from. Molucella are classified in the mint family, but easy as mint? No. Still, once you get past the germination part, you are golden ( or, well,...green).

Grow in Full Sun
Plants HATE any root disturbance, have long tap root that needs to be straight
Half Hardy Annual
Tolerant of light frosts as a seedling
The plant has an odd pine-meets-lavender scent
It can grow as tall as 4 feet if grown well and self sown
Seeds need a cold period and light, in order to germinate
Plants relish heat once established ( think- Syria and Afghanistan type of heat, not Ireland type of heat)
Flowers are not really green, but the bracts are.


  1. I have tried to grow Bells of Ireland without success. I too have have done better with difficult plants, Stewartia trees propagated from seed collected at the Arnold Arboretum for instance, than common seeds in my basement. I will be anxious to see how you do with Bells of Ireland this year.

  2. You're a man after my own heart. Plant geeks recognize one another. I left you a message on Blotanical before I finished reading your post.
    Another of my favorites is the Ipomoea / Cardinal Flower, but I had luck only the very first year I planted my new California Garden. Everything was very open then, and I think it was rather on its own, as well. But it grew and flowered and scrambled, and I loved it!
    They've changed the nomenclature a number of times, it seems. Just wanted to pop by and say hello!
    new site: http://alicesgardentravelbuzz.com
    still maintaining the google blog, too;-D

  3. You know I have been to public and private gardens all over the United States, in Japan, Ireland and England. Have been to the Chelsea Flower Show and Hampton Court Flower Show and it occurs to me that I have never ever seen Molucella growing in real life. All I have ever seen is those catalog pictures. Maybe I have seen them in flower arrangements in hotels or something but I can't recall a specific incident.

    So I hope you post pictures if you grow it successfully!

  4. I am from Turkey too :)

  5. Anonymous11:38 AM

    I was blessed with a wonderful Grandma who was the best cook/baker and gardener I have ever known. Every year without fail, she had gorgeous "Bells of Ireland" in her flower garden in San Antonio, Texas. When she died, they did not return. I have never seen them growing anywhere else, nor have I seen the seeds anywhere other than online. Next spring, I will plant seeds in her honor at Daddy's house (her 3rd son, recently deceased) and pray they flourish.

    Carrie Robbins

    1. Anonymous7:44 PM

      Your story is so like my story. My Granny taught me to grow them in Kansas.They were tall about3 ft. It is hard to remember that much because it was 50 years ago. I will never forget the fragrance of Bells of Ireland on a hot Kansas day. I was 10 yrs old and the best memories of my life are of that time. So I decided that I would try them here in Oregon. It has been a test but I have some that are lush and healthy but not very tall. I wonder if "pruning" them will make a taller plant? I am determined to keep trying every year until I get it right. Can some one help me? I do not remember Granny pruning them, but then it was a long tine ago. This site is the only site that has given me insite. I had no idea that they have tap roots. I started mine under grow lights and heating pads in 6 packs in April and have been thrilled that they are growing well and are making stalks of beautiful bells tho not very tall.

  6. Goldenrod Gardens11:46 AM

    I grow Bells of Ireland in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. Out of all of the cut flowers I grow for local sales, nothing gets more attention than those cool green spikes with the minty smell. I always start them in commercial styrofoam 'tobacco' trays. The trays make transplanting easy for things such as Moluccella and Lupinus because the deep plugs allow the tap roots to go straight down. when they are ready to be planted out, I simply pop them out. We have cool summers here, which they prefer. If you want consistent germination, plant them in individual plugs late fall, cover lightly, water in, and leave them outside in the winter weather for a few weeks. I also let them volunteer in 3g pots where they grow on in a cool greenhouse through the winter. I can get beautiful cuttings from those in late March.

  7. Anonymous7:42 AM

    Hello All, I'm a novice gardner. It has taken me 3x to get my Bells of Ireland to grow, a feat I'm very proud of as they are a bit "persnickety" to grow. I'm just between Austin and San Antonio TX. zone 8b. I wrapped my seeds in a paper towel then ziplock Baggie and left it in my fridge for 3 weeks. I planted my seeds in the Jiffy Pellets ( the kind that expand once water is added ) when they were ready, I transplanted the little pellets with root system in tact so as not to disturb it. I planted them in a very large container, so I would not have to transplant later and "upset" the root system . It took a while and for a bit I thought it was a lost cause, then all of a sudden they just took off at the beginning of Feb. now that they ate established I will begin fertilizing and they will be going into the ground . Don't know if that helps anyone but that's how I did it. Happy planting

    1. Hi. How are your plants? I am wondering if I can grow them here using your method?

    2. This was the first year I grew Bells of Ireland. Started them from seed in peat pots in a greenhouse. Buy May 1st they were 4" tall so I planned them in my flower garden. Today they are 3' tall and gorgeous. Very easy to grow here in
      On the northern Virginia shore.

  8. Anonymous4:02 PM

    I had one stalk in some flowers I bought. I suddenly noticed it had grown and was much taller than the flowers. When I looked closer there are tiny roots. How do I keep it growing?
    Thank You,
    Linda Keeton

  9. Anonymous1:38 AM

    I live in the Twin Cities area and bought a packet of Bells of Ireland a few years ago. They grew very well and I left them in the garden until mid-November when I cleared out the beds. The next year, they volunteered and grew and have been doing so each year without any help from me. In May, I dig up the beds and add fertilizer and plant zinnias and marigolds and gladiolas and anything else that catches my eye (from seed, I don't have a greenhouse) and the Bells of Ireland sprout up the same time the other flowers do. They don't grow much more than 2-3 feet tall each year.

  10. Anonymous3:06 AM

    I have good luck planting bells of Ireland seed in cardboard toilet paper tubes. This allows the seedling to form a long taproot, and you can plant the entire thing when you place them outside. The cardboard will wither away and you don't have to disturb the roots at all. I first soak the seeds overnight in warm water, then plant 2 seeds per tube, in damp but not wet soil.(remove the weaker of the 2seedlings if both seeds germinate). I don't cover the seeds with soil but just press into the soil with a toothpick until they are slightly under the soil line. I then wrap about 12 together in a plastic bag and place in the fridge in crisper drawer for 3 weeks. Once a day, I open the bag for a couple of minutes for air circulation. after the 3 weeks. I unwrap the plastic and place them in my unheated verandah (lots of windows). they will normally germinate within 1 to 2 weeks. the seedlings do not like to grow in temps over 15 C (62 F). Once they are large enough to plant outside, they thrive in the heat and bright sun. I have had good luck with this method, averaging about 75% germination. These are not the easiest seeds to grow, but worth the effort.

  11. I put in a search for these since i just got them blooming & found this blog. I wanted to read up about them since I didn't have luck in the past with these & had forgotton what the package says they like. I feel very lucky now that I've read this. I'd like to share the photos that I've just taken but i don't see a place to attach, now. Any suggestions as to how i can share?

  12. I grew Bells of Ireland 30 yrs ago from seed just tossed them in the soil. Up they sprang in their Emerald Glory. Now I live in the high desert about 60 miles ne of where I first grew them. I recently bought some Bells of Ireland seeds tossed them in the soil about 3 wks ago & Was delighted to see the seedlings about 1" tall.!! Thrilled! I love them in flower arrangements thanks for the history. Enjoy

  13. I always use Bells in fresh flower arrangements, but would like to try growing them in the garden. I'm inclined to go with the direct-in-the-ground method, but wonder what would be the best timetable for zone 9, in northeast Florida? Thanks.

  14. I love Bells of Ireland and have an interesting experience growing them here in Scottsdale, Arizona. One year, I returned from vacation to find that they were one of the few things to survive the rabbits while I was gone. I grew them this year, delightfully, by accident.
    As an aside, genetically, the Irish also originate from turkey. I am mostly Irish but I have the same mitochondrial (maternal) dna as Dr. OZ, who is Turkish.


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