Flowers

Bells of Ireland Care: Growing Moluccella laevis


Bells of Ireland is a great beginner flower to try in your ornamental garden

If you’re a fan of tall flower stalks with interesting botanical structures, Bells of Ireland is a great plant for you. Hailing from Western Asia, these bells don’t call Ireland their home. The culprit for this common name was most likely an enterprising seed distributor in the 20th century.

While they have a wide hardiness range, these plants grow best in dry, cool areas. They’re hardy down to zone 2 and do fine in regions of zones 6 through 11. But they aren’t fans of too much heat or humidity. Therefore, there’s a limit to where Bells of Ireland will thrive. 

If you are living in a colder zone, you’ll need to get your timing right for planting, especially if you’re growing Bells of Ireland seeds. Fear not, though. We’ll discuss this and all the base needs you should provide for your bells in this piece.

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Quick Care

Bells of Ireland is a great beginner flower to try in your ornamental garden
Bells of Ireland is a great beginner flower to try in your ornamental garden. Source: sarowen
Scientific Name:Moluccella laevis
Common Name(s):Bells of Ireland, Molucca balmis, shell flower
Family: Lamiaceae
Height & Spread:2-3 feet tall, about 1 foot wide
Sun:Full sun
Soil:Average, well-drained soil
Water:1 inch per week
Pests & Diseases:Leaf blight, crown rot, aphids, spider mites

All About Bells of Ireland

The botanical name, Moluccella laevis is associated with the common names Bells of Ireland, Molucca balmis, or shell flower. The most popular of these – Bells of Ireland – is a bit of a misnomer, as the plant doesn’t originate in Ireland, but instead is native to the Mediterranean, namely Turkey, Syria, and parts of India. The Bells of Ireland common name most likely came about due to an Irish flower farmer who wanted to sell seeds of the plant to other flower enthusiasts.  

The plant is a hardy annual in the Lamiaceae or mint family. Its tall flower stalks reach 2 to 3 feet and spread 1-foot wide per plant. Each square-shaped stalk is covered with thorns and bells of green calyces (or flower-like leaf parts) that have tiny white flowers deep in their center. In between a few of the bells, serrated mint-like leaves jut out perpendicularly.

Their sensitive tap root grows down into the soil below. People grow these lovely and interesting plants for both fresh arrangements and dried arrangements. They plant them to block access to plants wildlife like to munch on, due to their deer resistance. They also attract pollinators, specifically butterflies.

These plants prefer cooler weather, and won’t perform as well in hot or humid areas. If you’ve opted to plant them in a warmer zone, you may notice they add interest to your garden, but you’ll also notice variability. Some plants will grow taller spikes than others, which may not flower at all. Therefore, in hotter areas, it may be better to cultivate them in your container garden.    

Even though this plant is an annual, it does readily self-seed. Its foliage grows in spring and its flowers bloom in summer and fall. As the flowers die away, they release small seeds that overwinter, and emerge again in early spring – but only in optimal conditions. These seeds should remain on the soil surface, as they need light to germinate. The fading flowers precede lovely bleaching of the calices that adds a welcome change to the space in which they are planted.  

One of the plant’s other common names, Molucca balmis, was assigned by Carl Linnaeus, who initially classed the plant in the Moluccas genus, named after the Spice Islands of Indonesia. Some suggest this has to do with the spicy scent Bells of Ireland emit from their flowers. The Bells of Ireland are also commonly associated with good luck and fortune. Therefore, they’re often given as a cut flower to people embarking on new life journeys.

Bells of Ireland Care

Moluccella laevis flowers close-up
Moluccella laevis flowers close-up. Source: sarowen

If you want to grow this lovely flowering plant with long stems for flower arrangements, you’ll need to know what is required to grow it. Here are the basics!

Sun and Temperature

The native habitats of Bells of Ireland have colder climates that are dry. Therefore, if you do not live in cooler regions, adjust your conditions to better suit the plant. While those in its hardiness zone 2 will do best in full sun with at least 6 to 8 hours per day. The afternoon sun can be shaded, but the morning sun is a must.

Those grown in the right climate with inadequate light will take on a floppy stem that requires staking. Outside their hardiness range, in warmer climates, give Bells of Ireland more shade. Again, morning light is best, as opposed to that of the afternoon. 

While zone 2 has lots of cold, these annuals die back as the frost comes in autumn. They can withstand some light frosts, but consistent freezes or snap freezes will damage the leaves of the plants. If you grow Bells of Ireland outside zone 2, particularly in subtropical regions, keep them out of too much sun and heat, and provide at least partial shade. It’s here they’ll take on scorching, and won’t perform as well. 

Water and Humidity

Your Bells of Ireland plants need at least 1 inch of water per week. They prefer that the soil remain moist in the garden throughout their annual lifespan. Especially when you are nursing seedlings, keep the site or your containers consistently moist, but don’t waterlog it.

While your bells aren’t typically prone to water borne illnesses, they can experience issues with fungal leaf spots and the like when they’re watered from above, rather than at their base with soaker hoses or drip irrigation. If you do not have an irrigation system, water carefully by hand with a slow-flowing hose or watering can. Avoid wetting the leaves of your planting. 

Because the plants die back in fall and winter, you won’t need to water them when only woody stems remain. But a little bit of water applied to the areas where seeds may have spread will help with spring germination. As for humidity, keep your Bells of Ireland away from humid climates, either indoors or outdoors. If you’re cultivating them in a greenhouse, make sure it’s not one designed for humidity-loving tropicals. 

Soil

Make sure your bells are planted in a spot with well-draining soil. Most average garden soil is perfect for them, but compacted soils will cause problems with taproot development. Sandy soil is just fine for them, and a regular potting soil amended with agricultural sand is great for containers. 

Poor quality soils may still produce the tiny white flowers people love to add to flower arrangements, but in order to fully mature the plants prefer good nutrition and drainage. A neutral pH of 6.5 to 7.5 is best for growing these plants. 

Fertilizing

Even if you’re growing these plants indoors or in container gardens, they won’t need extra feeding beyond the fill of your garden site or pot. Especially in areas that get hot and humid, don’t feed them, as they won’t be suited to uptake nutrients in these conditions. As long as the ground you plant them in has organic content, you’re good to go. 

Pruning

As the stems of your plant bloom, you may want to cut them for flower arrangements or bouquets. In this case, do so when the flowers are about half way open if you’re working with a fresh arrangement. For dried cut flower arrangements, cut them when they’re fully open. Wear gloves to protect your hands from the thorny stems.

Outside having a harvest of cut flowers, there is little reason to prune for cosmetic reasons. If you’d like to clean your garden after they die back, you can cut the dead stems out of the garden in winter. You can also leave them for nesting wildlife. 

Bells of Ireland Propagation

Sowing seeds is the best mode of propagation. You can let the plant sow seeds naturally, allowing the plant to bloom, and the flowers to release seeds for them to germinate naturally in spring. However, seeds will only sprout in areas where the climate is right. 

You can also sow seeds indoors, ahead of the last frost date by about 8 to 10 weeks. Sowing in seeds flats to be planted in the garden whole is best. Simulate the overwintering process by refrigerating your seeds for about a week first. After you wait this time, soak the seeds in water for 24 hours. You can also simulate this moisture treatment by placing the seeds in a plastic bag with a wet paper towel or napkin.

Due to their tendency to transplant shock, germinate your seeds in peat pots, or our Epic 4-cells. Both allow you to avoid root disturbances. Fill these with potting soil, or a slightly moisture retentive seed starting mix with 1 part vermiculite, 1 part peat moss, and 1 part perlite. Press the prepared seeds into the soil surface and keep them exposed to light. In a few weeks, they’ll sprout.  

If you’d like to avoid the risk of transplant shock, sow seeds directly in the garden ground, but wait until the last frost date has passed. Only use this method if the climate conditions have allowed the plants to experience natural germination of seeds on their own in your garden. Keep the seeds on the soil surface, and spread a thin layer of vermiculite that will keep them from blowing away, but expose them to the light they need to grow. 

Troubleshooting Bells of Ireland Issues

Now that we’ve talked about planting and caring for Bells of Ireland, let’s discuss some of the problems gardeners face when they work with these fragrant flowers. Most of the problems occur in the seed germination and seedling phases of growth. 

Bells of Ireland Growing Problems

People who try to grow Bells of Ireland outside colder zones may find they have variable success in getting them to mature and flower. Stems in too much shade may flop and fall over, making it difficult for gardeners to have access to the lovely fragrant cut flowers the bells produce. Stake them if necessary. Bells of Ireland seeds also typically don’t germinate naturally outside their preferred climate. 

Similarly, if you try to transplant seedlings, they could experience transplant shock in the process. This is why direct seeding or planting Bells of Ireland seeds in seed trays is recommended in areas outside USDA zone 2. Related to this, growing in poor soil with too much or too little light or water may not yield the lovely fresh scent these flowers provide.   

Pests and Diseases

While the growing requirements of Bells of Ireland seeds and plants are somewhat complicated, the pests attracted to the plant are few. Deer do not bother a garden bordered by this species. Most wildlife leaves the plant alone. 

However, you could have some issues with sap-sucking aphids and spider mites. They tend to congregate on the leaves, and consume plant juices. In large infestations, you’ll notice either pest congregating on the leaves. Aphids are readily visible, and spider mites will leave behind evidence of their feeding in the form of tightly woven webs and mite poop. 

You can blast the planting site with water to rip both mite and aphid mouthparts off their bodies and prevent further feeding. If this doesn’t work after a few treatments, you can use neem oil, however, since these plants are such pollinator attractants, it may be best to hand wipe the pests from your plants repeatedly instead.  

Diseases

Leaf blight and crown rot are the only diseases you may have to contend with in the Bells of Ireland planting site. If you’re watering properly, and keeping your plants out of humidity, the likelihood of either issue is greatly reduced. However, if the plant begins wilting from the ground up, check for a rotted base. If one is present, remove the entire plant and dispose of it to prevent the spread. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Are Bells of Ireland hard to grow?

A: The tiny flowers of these plants aren’t necessarily hard to grow, but they do require certain conditions to flourish. 

Q: Are Bells of Ireland perennials?

A: They are hardy annuals in most regions, dying back in fall to seed out and return in spring. 

Q: Is Bells of Ireland poisonous?

A: They’re not known to be poisonous. 

Q: Do Bells of Ireland need full sun?

A: In their preferred hardiness range, they do. In areas that are warmer, keep them in a place with afternoon shade at least. 

Q: Do bells of Ireland spread?

A: In their native or hardiness range, they fill hillsides with their lovely shell or bell-shaped blooms due to their ability to self-seed annually. 

Q: Can bells of Ireland survive frost?

A: Most can take incidental light frost. However, after a few weeks of consistent frost, they’ll die back. This is part of their natural life cycle, though.  

Q: Should I pinch bells of Ireland?

A: It’s not necessary, but if you’d like to fill a vase with them you can harvest them either when they are halfway open or fully open. 

Q: Do bells of Ireland reseed?

A: They do! But only in optimal climates. 

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