Fairy bells: not a plant to blackball

It is strange what plants follow you around and stay with you through your gardening life. I have moved many times and few plants have managed to survive the moves. A few are rather special and long-lived, like my clivias and aspidistra while others seed in other pots and keep popping up like the white form of herb Robert.

I have also grown fairy bells, the hardly common name of Melasphaerula graminea, for at least 30 years. I first got seeds from Silverhill seeds in South Africa and it has seeded into pots periodically and so has remained with me, despite being a tender bulb. The website of the South African National Biodiversity Institute is not very flattering, stating: ‘The unpleasantly scented, sour and putrid odours emitted by the flowers, attract small March Flies (a nectar-feeding fly) which appear to be the only pollinators of these tiny, dull-coloured, short-tubed flowers.’

I think this is really mean and I love this plant and I like the scent of the flowers. It is a slim plant with typical iridaceae leaves and the flowers are like tiny gladioli. They open pale yellow and age to gold. They have attractive striping but I admit that they are small. When the flower scapes appear they look like grass stems and a potful becomes a tangle of much branching stems and a mass of tiny, dangling blooms. A good potful, well grown, is a cloud of blooms and quite showy and I think the fragrance is a mix of honey and hay. I think one of the charms of the plant is the way the flowers are strung along impossibly thin stems that are curved between each bloom. The flowers are so small and set in so many directions that it is impossible to get a good photo – but I will keep trying.

It is easy to grow but from winter-rainfall areas so it starts to grow in autumn and flowers in spring, and is dormant in summer. It can flower the first year from seed and seed is very freely produced in the large (larger than the flowers) seed pods. It is not hardy and it struggled this winter when in the greenhouse before the heating was sorted (see below). But a touch of frost did not kill it and as soon as it got warmer it surged into growth. I wish it was just a bit hardier because I would love to grow it outside but, knowing how well it seeds, it is probably just as well it is not hardy. In the wild it grows in part shade but I try to give it as much light as possible when in growth.

The botanical name is very descriptive: Melasphaerula means black balls, which refers to the shape and colour of the corms and graminea describes the overall effect. I know this is not a commercial plant but I would love it if just one of my plants had slightly bigger flowers to tip it from the ‘interesting’ category to the ‘wow’ crowd.

In the photo above it was beside hippeastrum ‘Evergreen’, blooming at its own time after earlier flowering last year.

To save on heating costs, in the greenhouse I have a plastic greenhouse which is heated with a heating mat to raise seedlings. Winter has been mild so I have not heated the main greenhouse, hoping that any heat escaping from the mini greenhouse would keep out frost. I have a fan heater handy, just in case. But the heated area is being productive and I am making the most of it.

After pricking out the seedlings have to cope with cooler conditions.


3 Comments on “Fairy bells: not a plant to blackball”

  1. tonytomeo
    April 7, 2022 at 7:39 am #

    It is not strange at all. We keep plants around like we keep anything else with memories. It would not be easy to lose some of them. I still grow the same rhubarb that I got from my great grandfather before I was in kindergarten, and the iris that I got from my great grandmother at about the same time. I will always grow them.

    • thebikinggardener
      April 7, 2022 at 8:29 am #

      It is special to grow plants that have been with friends or family for years or even generations.

  2. Paddy Tobin
    April 7, 2022 at 7:56 am #

    You have your seedlings coming along very well! The Melasphaerula graminea is an interesting one!

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