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How to Grow Bells of Ireland, a Cottage Garden Favorite

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

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My childhood garden featured green zinnias because I was fascinated by the concept of green flowers. For years, I thought that zinnias were the only green flowers. Then I discovered Bells of Ireland, also known as Shell Flowers because of the shape of their flowers.

What are Bells of Ireland?

In spite of their name, Bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis) are not from Ireland. They are native to western Asia (Turkey and Syria). They have been documented as growing in European gardens since the 16th century. The green color of their flowers is what associated them with Ireland. Bells of Ireland symbolize luck in the language of flowers.

How to Grow Bells of Ireland

Bells of Ireland are grown as annuals in all growing zones. Because of their origins in the Middle East which is very dry, they grow best in areas with hot, dry summers. They do not do as well in humid areas. I have had problems growing Bells of Ireland in my New Jersey garden due to our humid summers.

The plants are about 12 inches high and 12 inches wide. The plants themselves are not terribly attractive. Bells of Ireland work best planted in the rear of your garden where the flower stalks lend height, while their less attractive foliage will be screened by your other flowers.

Give the plants full sun for the flower stalks to achieve their full height of 3 feet. They will be shorter in light shade. Plant them in a sheltered area where the wind cannot blow over the flower stalks. You can also stake the flower stalks. Bloom time is from mid-summer until the first frost.

The “bells” are actually green calyxes which surround their tiny white flowers. Unlike most annuals, there is no need to deadhead them. The plants do not rebloom once their flowers are removed. Bells of Ireland readily reseed themselves in your garden. You can leave the flowers on the plants so that they produce seed or you can harvest the flower stalks and use them fresh or dried in flower arrangements. Bells of Ireland are popular in cutting gardens. Cutting gardens are gardens where flowers are grown specifically to be harvested for use in flower arrangements.

The "bells" are actually green calyxes which surround the tiny white flowers.

The "bells" are actually green calyxes which surround the tiny white flowers.

How to Grow Bells of Ireland From Seed

Bells of Ireland are easy to grow from seed. You can direct sow them in your garden in the fall. Surface sow them. Do not cover. The seeds need light to germinate. They will germinate in the early spring. Thin them to 12 inches apart.

Alternatively, you can direct sow your seeds in the early spring as soon as the ground can be worked. Surface sow them. Do not cover the seeds. They need light to germinate. Germination should occur in 4 to 5 weeks. Thin the seedlings to 12 inches apart.

You can start seeds indoors if you prefer. Start them 8 weeks before your last frost. The seeds need to be cold stratified first. This mimics the cold weather that they would experience if grown outdoors. Fill a container with moistened soil and surface sow the seeds. Do not cover them. They need light to germinate. Cover the container with a plastic bag to keep the soil moist. Place the covered container in your refrigerator for at least a week. Then remove the container from your refrigerator, remove the plastic bag and put your container on a sunny windowsill. Germination should occur in 4 to 5 weeks. You can transplant your seedlings outdoors after your last frost. Plant them 12 inches apart.

How to Harvest Bells of Ireland For Use in Flower Arrangements

Bells of Ireland are frequently used in bridal bouquets, St. Patrick’s Day flower arrangements and in dried arrangements.

For use in fresh flower arrangements, harvest the flower stalks when the flowers have developed on the stems and about half of them have opened. Harvest early in the morning. Remove the leaves from the bottom half of the stems and place the stalks in a vase of water. Store them in a refrigerator to keep them fresh until you are ready to create your arrangement. The flowers will fully open within a day. Bells of Ireland in flower arrangements will last up to two weeks in vase.

Bells of Ireland flowers are also used in dried arrangements. To dry the flowers, harvest the stalks when all of the flowers have fully opened. Tie them in small bunches and hang them upside down in a cool, dark, well-ventilated space. The flowers turn a light tan color when fully dried. Be careful handling them. The dried flowers are very brittle and shatter easily.

© 2014 Caren White

Comments

Caren White (author) on June 23, 2014:

Bac, cold stratifying works for a number of plants, fooling them into thinking that winter has come and gone. People in the southern US use it on their spring flowering bulbs since their winters are not cold enough.

Anne from Spain on June 23, 2014:

These would serve the purpose as a good backdrop to a more showy plant. Nice tip about the cold stratifying.

Caren White (author) on June 22, 2014:

I've always been fascinated by green flowers. Thanks for reading.

FlourishAnyway from USA on June 21, 2014:

Lovely! I love that there are green flowers. How interesting that they are native to Asia but named after Ireland for obvious reasons.

Caren White (author) on June 21, 2014:

You're so welcome. I'm glad that you can finally put a name to these wonderful flowers. Thank you for reading.

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on June 21, 2014:

I love these and had no idea what they were called. Very interesting; than you. ^+