Place: Turkey, Syria, the Caucasus

Uses: Garden ornamental, cut flower arranging

Fun fact: Bells of Ireland is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) and is related to catmint, salvia, thyme and lavender.

Bells of Ireland Origin and History

Moluccella laevis, or Bells of Ireland, doesn’t hail from the Emerald Isle at all; rather this lovely flowering annual is native to Turkey, Syria and the Caucuses.

In his Species Plantarum, (or “Species of Plants”), published in 1753, botanist Carl Linneaus named this plant Moluccella laevis, apparently believing that they originated in the Moluccas, or Maluku Islands, an archipelago in Indonesia that was also called the Spice Islands.

It’s believed that the flower was taken to Europe from Syria around 1570, possibly for use in the burgeoning perfume industry, along the established trade routes that linked Europe and the Middle East. Perfumery makes use of the volatile oils of many members of the Lamiaceae family, to which Bells of Ireland belongs, including hyssop, lavender and patchouli.

Bells of Ireland has a singularly striking presence. Its two- to three-feet tall, square-stemmed spires are laden with cup-like green leaves and tiny, delicate white and violet flowers that exude a sweet vanilla-like fragrance.

Green leaves of Bells of Ireland

Bells of Ireland

Moluccella made its way into U.S. gardens during the late 19th century. In 1884, Vick’s seed catalog listed it as Molucca balm, noting that it was also referred to as shell flower. Burpee’s 1894 catalog also called it Molucca balm, “for the delightful balm fragrance that arises from it when cut or broken.” (Among its other names, it has also been referred to as “Lady In the Bathtub.”) In 1938, Rex D. Pearce’s Seeds of Rare Plants called the plant “quaint,” saying it brought to mind the “demure faces” of Quaker maidens, “framed in gray bonnets,” and described the color of the flowers’ calyces as a “delicate, pearly greenness, like sun through sea-water.”

In 1942, it began showing up as Bells of Ireland, when Bodger’s and Vaughan’s seed companies both listed it as such in their catalogs. That year, Vaughan’s offered it as one of its new flowers and specialties, calling it “Bell of Ireland.”

Given its name — and its money green color — Bells of Ireland has come to symbolize good luck in the language of flowers. It is prominently featured in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, and it makes frequent appearances in flower arrangements for graduates and newlyweds. Florists love Bells Of Ireland for its unusual looks and its stamina as a cut flower.

Bells of Ireland is an alluring ornamental, but since many members of the Lamiaceae family have long been used in traditional medicine, researchers have also begun to investigate whether it might have similar properties. A recent study examined its potential antibacterial compounds, concluding that the plant holds promise as a source for discovering new antibacterial agents and warranted further study of its anti-inflammatory properties.

How to Grow Bells of Ireland

White flowers and green leaves of Bells of Irreland.

Bells of Ireland Flowers

Bells of Ireland plants are easily started from seed, and should be started indoors 8 to 10 weeks before last frost, then transplanted out once the nighttime temperature is reliably above 40 F. They are slow to germinate, but chilling the seeds in the refrigerator for two weeks may coax them along. Plant the seedlings about a foot apart in a sunny location. It likes regular watering and benefits from regular fertilizing, but it doesn’t much like high heat or humidity. To encourage upright spikes, some growers will gently tie the growing spires to wooden stakes. Bells of Ireland will readily reseed if given a chance.

These striking green stalks make a wonderful complement to colorful blooming flowers in the garden. Plant some for luck and beauty in your garden!

And if you are ready to transform your outdoor space into a botanical masterpiece, explore our shop for a wide selection of vegetable and flower seeds! Start cultivating your botanical dreams today!