• You Can Call Them "Shrek's Ears": Growing Bells of Ireland from Seed

July 24, 2018

Not long ago, we got to chatting with a customer about her order, and she had a great story to share. "There's this house on my regular dog-walking route with a gorgeous cottage garden out front," she said. "They had this unusual green plant I'd never seen before, with funnel-shaped green foliage—or something—on it. I had no idea what it was called, but in my mind, I called it 'Shrek's Ears.'"

She went on, "One day, the homeowner was out gardening when I walked by, and I had to ask her the name of the plant. 'Bells of Ireland,'" she told me. I felt like an idiot, then, when I introduced myself as 'Siobhan' In my straight-off-the-boat Irish accent."

Don't worry, Siobhan. Bells of Ireland has no cultural significance to those of Celtic origin. Moluccella laevis is actually from western Asia, Turkey, Syria, and the Caucuses. It didn't become popular in western Europe until its introduction in the mid-16th century. And you can go ahead and call Moluccella laevis "Shrek's ears" as much as you'd like; it's also been called "shell flower" and "cup flower.

In Victorian times, Bells of Ireland symbolized good fortune, so if you associate luck with four-leafed clovers, leprechauns, and sugary breakfast cereal, well, it's Irish...as Irish as a bunch of frat boys on St. Patrick's Day.

Bells of Ireland in the Garden

I swear we could just cut-and-paste "a member of the Lamiaceae family..." throughout our blog posts and have so much free time, we could actually weed our own gardens. But it's true; this unusual plant that looks more alien than terrestrial really is a mint cousin.

The "bells" on Bells of Ireland are sepals (called calyxes when they're fused, or when they're referred to in the collective). The calyxes are 3/4" to 1 1/2" across and densely bunched along the spikes. Just as calyxes encase a flower bud, each bell on an M. laevis stem protects a tiny pearl in its center, which unfurls into a fragrant orchid-shaped flower.

Magic is fleeting, however, and this fairy-tale flower fades after only a few days (though others continue to bloom on younger calyxes), but the foliage and calyxes remain in the garden or as a cut flower...if not happily ever after, then for one he** of a long time.

Bells of Ireland is a self-seeding annual that grows up to three feet tall and a foot wide. It's highly fragrant with a pleasant, somewhat minty, apple-like, esoteric scent that most gardening guides have a difficult time describing...and we too are hard-pressed to come up with an adequate comparison. Bells of Ireland was used as a perfume fragrance back in the day.

The plant's calyxes and leaves are yellow-green (or Shrek-colored, if you will). The leaves themselves, which pop out on short stems along the length of the stalks, are broad, lobed, and slightly "rumple-y," and are reminiscent of ivy.

Even though we gardeners cast taller plants in backdrop roles, a Bells of Ireland plant is something you'll want to admire close-up. Consider planting your Moluccella laevis at the centers of small raised bed gardens, or along sidewalk fence lines. We've seen them successfully dress up the bases of utility poles and mailboxes or border porches that overlook sprawling gardens.

The plant's hollow stems can require a little support, so try planting Bells of Ireland next to trellises and garden arches, using soft twine to secure them as they grow.

They look fantastic next to other spiky plants such as foxglove and help hide sparse sunflower stems. If you're trying to add visual "cooling" to a sunny garden spot, mix Bells of Ireland with soft-textured pale white, yellow, or green flowering plants. Try hydrangea or zinnias, or miniature antique roses. Try them amid our Bird and Butterfly Wildflower Mix, which contains a number of plants of varying height, texture, and hues that complement Bells of Ireland.

We've always wanted to grow Bells of Ireland near Brussels sprouts. You know..."innies" and "outies." Both plants have the same cultivation preferences, so why not?

Bells of Ireland make decent container plants, especially when you're mixing plants of varying heights in a single large pot, and you want a dramatic backdrop.

Bells of Ireland as a Floral Design Specimen

Both green and dried Moluccella laevis stalks are valued by florists as "filler" greens, adding bulk and texture to arrangements. They also make excellent standalone displays.

Dream up your own floral creations using homegrown lupines, carnations, baby's breath, bishop's flower, and gayfeathers from your very own garden. These are just our suggestions; check out our catalog for more ideas.

Growing Requirements for Bells of Ireland

While Shrek might love his hovel deep in the shadows of the Swamp of Illusion, Moluccella laevis prefers an entirely different environment. Chances are, you've got the perfect spot in your garden.

USDA Hardiness Zones: 2-11, preferring regions with cooler maritime summers.

Sunlight: Select a spot with full sun. In the hottest areas, Bells of Ireland tolerates late afternoon partial shade.

Watering Needs: Bells of Ireland requires consistently moist, well-drained soil. We recommend mulching around your Bells of Ireland (provided you don't mulch directly against the base of the plant) to help keep the soil cool and damp.

Soil Quality: Bells of Ireland tolerates poor soil, but if your soil is compacted or clay-like, add a bit of sand and compost to loosen things up and improve drainage.

pH: Shoot for a neutral soil chemistry, with a target pH range between 6.5 to 7.5.

Bloom Time: Moluccella laevis blooms mid-summer through early fall.

Fertilizing: Consider giving your plants a boost by applying a general-purpose liquid fertilizer in mid-summer to boost plant height and vigor, especially if your soil quality is less than ideal. Avoid excess nitrogen.

Maintenance: Since Bells of Ireland easily reseeds itself, you might consider harvesting the stalks before the flowers fade, or be prepared to "weed" out unwanted volunteers the following spring. After the first frost of fall, remove the entire plant to reduce the risk of disease the following year.

Be careful...Bells of Ireland has tiny thorns along its stems, so we recommend wearing sturdy gardening gloves. Taller Bells of Ireland spikes might require staking. 

Some nurseries catering to florists strip the leaves and calyxes from the lower quarter to third of each stem as they near their desired height; this is thought to make their stalks sturdier, and to prevent fungal issues close to the base of the plants. We don't see this as a necessary step for the average gardener.

Pests and Diseases: Bells of Ireland is a hardy plant if it's properly cared for, but it's marginally susceptible to the following:

  • Leaf miners
  • Leaf spot
  • Root rot
  • Aphids
  • Spider mites

Your Moluccella laevis plants are deer and rabbit resistant, but for some reason, they tend to attract annoyingly verbose donkeys.

Pet Safety: We couldn't find Bells of Ireland on any lists of plants known to be harmful to pets.

Harvesting: Cut stems are long lasting, staying green for 8-14 days when kept in water. Be sure to keep your arrangements out of direct sunlight; cooler zones in your home help extend their freshness.

Once they dry out, the foliage and calyxes turn an attractive tannish-brown color. Invert and dry your Bells of Ireland stalks in a well-ventilated area.

Growing Bells of Ireland from Seed

We recommend direct-sowing your Moluccella laevis in fall or early spring. If you opt for the latter, treat your seeds to 30 days of cold stratification using the paper towel and baggie method. Bells of Ireland seeds can take up to a month to germinate but usually emerge in 7-14 days.

Planting Substrate: Be sure to sift out any clumps in your soil or potting mix. See above for soil preferences.

Planting Depth: Bells of Ireland seeds require sunlight to germinate, so plant them no more than 1/16" deep.

Plant Spacing: Plant, thin, or transplant your Bells of Ireland at least one foot apart. Air circulation is important for optimal health.

Soil Temperature: This cool-weather plant doesn't need supplemental heat to germinate, but protect them from freezing once you've cold stratified your seedlings, which can emerge at temperatures as low as 45°F.

Watering: Keep your seeds moist during the germination process, using a fine mist. For indoor starts, moisten the soil surface with a mister, but bottom-water just enough to allow the soil to absorb the water. Don't expose your seedlings to standing water.

Transplanting: Transplant young seedlings when they're about 6" tall, the soil temperature is at least 45°F and you're past the risk of heavy frost.

Magic Seeds from Seed Needs

We're bummed that the phrase "happy ending" has an entirely new meaning these days, especially since we love trite fairy tale terms. If you want a "once upon a time" start to your garden, and that "happily ever after" feeling as your summer winds down, you'll definitely want to reach out to us for your garden seeds...especially if you fancy yourself a "good witch," since we're proud of our wide variety of medicinal herbs.

Bells of Ireland is an heirloom plant, and we're proud to carry these as well as hundreds of other ornamental, vegetable, and herb seeds. We hand-package our seeds and only stock what we're confident we'll sell in a single season. Our suppliers propagate healthy, productive, non-GMO parent genetics, and our family business is committed to quality and customer service.

If you have a thing for cheesy cultural references and helpful gardening tips, be sure to bookmark our blog for the dirt on featured plants and product news!


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