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.