For St. Patrick's Day: Bells of Ireland

The tall green spikes are a welcome sight after weeks of white

In The Garden

March 16, 2003|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

On St. Patrick's Day, everybody -- regardless of national heritage -- is Irish. We sport moth-eaten green sweaters, quaff green liquids, and wolf green eggs and ham. But the plunge into verdure is not so much yearning for the "old sod" as a yearning for any sod. We're sick of winter and pine for a bit o' the green, even if it's only woolens and weird food.

But what we really want is a renewed connection with growing things, which is why Bells of Ireland, tall-stemmed and densely packed with emerald green flowers, are so popular.

"There's a discernible spike in the demand for Bells of Ireland around St. Patrick's Day," says Melissa Rosen, communications manager at "It's also our featured flower of the month for March in one of our monthly gift clubs."

Yet despite its common name, Bells of Ireland (a.k.a. shellflowers) are not native to the Emerald Isle. The botanical name, Moluccella laevis, derives from the Molucca Islands west of New Guinea where a strain of the plant was discovered. They are also native to India and the Mediterranean.

On top of not being Irish, the bell-shaped flowers aren't really flowers at all. They are large calyxes, inch-long megaphone-like collars that surround the tiny, fragrant white flowers that lie within their centers. But while botanists are careful to make the distinction between true flower and calyx, it doesn't matter to those busily stuffing them into bouquets and planting them in borders.

"It's the unusual green color and the tall upright stems you grow them for," says Wanda Sorrells, horticulturist at Park Seed in Greenwood, S.C.

The hardy, cool-weather annual, which grows between 2 and 3 feet tall, adds great height to cut arrangements.

Additionally, Bells of Ireland are highly phototropic (they will bend readily toward any light source), which makes them a fun way to show children that plants are not only alive, but responsive to their environment.

When buying cut Bells of Ireland, choose strong, straight stems with well-formed bells. Remove all foliage that will be below the water line.

Check stems for tiny thorns, which can irritate. (Many floral designers use gloves when arranging the flowers, though thorns are often removed before they're sold as cut flowers.) Bells of Ireland last in bouquets for about seven to 10 days, but they also dry well and look good for months in dried arrangements.

"A lot of people buy them to dry," says Ellen Moriarity, manager of Comstock, Ferre Seeds in Wethersfield, Conn. "As they dry, they turn a beautiful straw color."

To dry, cut them when the flowers / calyxes are fully formed.

Carefully pick off the sparse prickly textured leaves for an unobstructed view of the bells, then hang upside down in a cool, dark room.

St. Patrick's Day is the perfect time to plant Bells of Ireland here in Maryland.

"They're not difficult to grow," says Moriarity. "But timing is key."

"It's a cool-season annual," agrees Sorrells. "So you have to have it out early. Once heat comes, it doesn't like it."

To direct seed in the garden, sprinkle the tiny seeds on the top of the soil where they should germinate in about four to five weeks. Or, you can start them indoors.

"But you need to trick the seeds into thinking they've gone through the winter outside on the ground," explains Claire Burrows, vice president of Thompson and Morgan Seedsmen in Jackson, N.J.

To accomplish this, planted seeds need to be chilled. Sprinkle seed on top of barely moist planting medium or potting soil in a pot or flat, then cover with a Zip-lock bag, whose top you have raised off the surface of the seeds. Put in the refrigerator for about two weeks. In early April, bring this mini-greenhouse out into the warmth to break dormancy.

"Leave them in the bag to create a little micro-environment to keep a steadier temperature," says Burrows. "Once they come through the surface of the soil, take them out of the bag. It takes about three weeks in the warmth for them to germinate."

Set plants out in the garden after danger of frost in a sunny or partially shaded location. Once they've finished blooming, you can shear them off or leave them standing to broadcast seed for next year's crop.

Bells of Ireland re-seed readily if there isn't a heavy covering of mulch to prevent their landing on soil.


Comstock, Ferre & Co.

263 Main St.

Wethersfield, CT 06109


Thompson & Morgan

P.O. Box 1308

Jackson, NJ 08527-0308


www.thompson-morgan. com

Select Seeds Antique Flowers

180 Stickney Hill Road

Union, CT 06076-4617


Park Seed

1 Parkton Ave.

Greenwood, SC 29647


W. Atlee Burpee & Co.

300 Park Ave.

Warminster, PA 18974



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