Bells of Ireland Ringing Again

At the close of the last century not a few flower gardeners boasted the growing of a peculiar plant called Bells of Ireland. Then, for reasons that we do not know, it seemed to take a back row until it became little more than a memory to gardening “Old Timers.”

After two generations, these green bells are ringing again. The cause of their pealing, however, is not tied to any political rejoicing in the “Ould Sod,” but to a revival of interest in the plant that botanists have named Molucella laevis.

However, the plant did not originate in Ireland. It is a descendant of a wild species that grows today in far off Syria, and other parts of Western Asia. It was brought to Europe early enough to have become an old fashioned flower even before the discovery of the New World.

Molucella laevis - flowering bells of ireland

This plant was not given its name because of the shape of its flowers, as is the case of the bluebell and canterbury, bell. It is the greatly enlarged and stemless calyx, within which the small flower grows, that fashions the bell. And what lovely bells they are: translucent green, interlaced with ivory veins, and thickly assembled around, and up and down, the green stalk.

The flower is a peculiar affair of white and pink-orchid tinting. It lifts out of a pearl bud, deep within the bell, and resembles (when viewed from one angle) the head of a white-toothed dragon, but looks like a flying gull when viewed from another.

All this is within the outflared rim of the green calyx. (One does not have to be of Irish ancestry to see the resemblances, but apparently it helps.)

Seeds for growing the Bells of Ireland land may be obtained from almost any seed supplier, even from package-seed racks in grocery stores.

Plant the seeds in rows spaced about 24 inches apart, and thin out the plants after the second pair of leaves is well advanced. We have found that plants growing too thickly together can be transplanted without harm if a small pellet of earth is left about the roots.

Cultivation is about the same as with tomatoes. Staking up of the older stalks may be advisable, for on rich soil they will grow to three feet in height. Clipping off the younger calyx-lined stalks to add interest to bouquets of other flowers does not harm the plant.

We have found the Bells of Ireland to be as free of insect pests as the balloon flower (Platycodon). In these days of insect warfare, this is a relief.

Although it is an annual, we have known winters here in the Midwest when the seeds dropped by earlier bloomings would start growth in the fall and would survive the winter’s cold, after the habit of the primrose or mullen.

These overwintering plants are slow to “get going” in the spring, and sometimes the plants from seeds sown in May, reach blooming age before those self-sown.

Question: Can bells of Ireland be dried successfully? If so, how?

Answer: To dry bells-of-Ireland, cut stalks and set the stems in a vase containing one-fourth glycerine and three-fourths water. Leave the stems in this solution for a week.

Then hang the flower stalks upside down in the shade and leave them until they are dry. If handled carefully they will last indefinitely.

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