Turtlehead Flowers – Information For Growing Turtlehead Chelone Plants
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By: Susan Patterson, Master Gardener
Its scientific name is Chelone glabra, but the turtlehead plant is a plant that goes by many names including shellflower, snakehead, snakemouth, cod head, fish mouth, balmony and bitter herb. Not surprisingly, turtlehead flowers resemble the head of a turtle, earning the plant this popular name.
So what is turtlehead? A member of the Figwort family, this interesting perennial wildflower is found in many parts of the eastern United States along stream banks, rivers, lakes and damp ground. Turtlehead flowers are hardy, require minimal maintenance and provide lots of late season color to the landscape.
Turtlehead Garden Care
With a mature height of 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm.), a spread of 1 foot (30 cm.) and pretty whitish pink flowers, the turtlehead plant is sure to be a conversation piece in any garden.
If you have a moist place in your landscape, these flowers will be right at home, although they are hardy enough to grow in dry soil as well. In addition to moist soil, growing turtlehead Chelone also requires a soil pH that is neutral and either full sun or part shade.
Turtlehead flowers can be started from seeds indoors, by directly sowing in a boggy location or with young plants or divisions.
Additional Turtlehead Plant Information
Although turtlehead flowers are great for natural landscapes, they are also very pretty in a vase as part of a cut flower bouquet. The pretty buds will last about a week in a container.
Many gardeners like growing turtlehead Chelone around the perimeter of their vegetable gardens, as deer are not interested in them. Their late summer blooms provide plenty of delicious nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds, making them a favorite of nature lovers.
Turtlehead plants divide easily and enjoy a deep layer of organic mulch. Turtleheads also do best in USDA planting zones 4-7. They are not suited for desert-like conditions and will not survive in the southwestern United States.
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Turtleheads - the Genus Chelone
If you have a moist site and want to extend the blooming season, then look no further than the turtleheads. This North American wildflower is an up and coming star in the plant world!
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 14, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
It seems that most of the genera of plants grown in our North American gardens hail from Europe or Asia. Only a handful of ornamentals are purely North American natives. Phlox, Rudbeckia and Echinacea are a few examples. Another genus, perhaps not as popular as those previously mentioned, is Chelone, commonly called turtlehead. In Greek mythology, Chelone was a nymph who made derogatory remarks about the marriage of Zeus and Hera. In retribution, she was turned into a tortoise, condemning her to eternal silence. Within the Greek language, chelone then became the word for tortoise (and hence the derivation of the common name for this plant).
There are only four species within the genus Chelone. In the wild, they grow on the edges of streams, lakes, bogs and wet thickets throughout eastern North America. Based on their growing preferences in the wild, they prefer a moist site. To accommodate them in the garden, position them in full sun and incorporate plenty of organic material in the growing area as a means to help increase the soil moisture. They do not require wet soil, but will suffer if the soil does not remain at least evenly moist. As Chelone grow 60 to 120 cm, they are ideal for the mid to back portion of a moist border or for utilizing near water features. Plants are stiffly upright and form reasonably large clumps over time. Their paired leaves are lance-shaped with serrated margins. The flowers are terminal in a dense head, blooming in mid-late summer and often well into the fall. Blooms, which are indeed shaped like a turtlehead, come in white or pink shades and make admirable cut-flowers. The resulting seed heads are attractive enough to use in dried-flower arrangements.
The most widespread and hardiest species is the white turtlehead or balmony, C. glabra. This plant extends west to Manitoba and Minnesota, east to Newfoundland and south to Georgia and Mississippi. Rated to zone 3, it is the hardiest species. Although not as showy as the other species, this one does have fragrant flowers. There are at least nine botanical varieties that exhibit slightly varying botanical differences. The species C. chlorantha and C. montana, sometimes found in older literature, are now classified as varieties of the white turtlehead. Flowers are typically white but may have a green or pink flush. ‘Montana' is distinctively purple-pink. Native Americans used this species as a medicinal plant to treat sores, fevers and as a gentle laxative.
Various colour forms of C. glabra
Pink and red turtlehead actually encompasses two very similar species, C. lyonii and C. obliqua. The former species is found in highland regions along the eastern seaboard from Maine south to Mississippi while the latter is a lowland species extending from the western Great Lakes south to Arkansas, Mississippi and the Southeastern states. The difference is mainly in the foliage which is narrow and elongate on C. obliqua while wider and more ovate on C. lyonii. Both are rated hardy to zone 4. 'Hot Lips' is a popular cultivar of C. lyonii with shiny dark-green leaves and rose-pink flowers.
Chelone cuthbertii has the most restricted natural range, found in mountainous areas of Southeastern U.S. from Virginia to Georgia. The flowers are very much like the pink or red turtlehead but the leaves are sessile (attached directly to the stem rather than having a leaf stalk). This species does not appear to be commonly cultivated. Most literature rate it hardy to at least zone 5.
Once classified as C. nemorosa is the now re-classified Notochelone nemorosa, a western species extending from British Columbia south to California. The flowers of this species are more like those of Penstemon or Physostegia, being distinctly two-lipped with flared openings. This species is rarely grown as a garden ornamental.
With their love of moist soils, turtleheads are ideal companions for rayflowers (Ligularia), rose mallow, astilbe, blue lobelia, cardinal flower, flag iris and various sedges. They are particularly valued for their late flowers, produced in the season when many other perennials have gone to seed. Relatively new as a garden ornamental, plant breeders are only now starting to look at possible new improved forms such as 'Hot Lips'. I expect more named varieties will arise in the near future, so keep your eyes open!
I would like to thank the following people for the use of their pictures: HarryNJ (C. obliqua full plant) and victorgardener (C. obliqua close-up)
About Todd Boland
About Todd Boland
I reside in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. I work as a research horticulturist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden. I am one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Wildflower Society and the current chair of the Newfoundland Rock Garden Society. My garden is quite small but I pack it tight! Outdoors I grow mostly alpines, bulbs and ericaceous shrubs. Indoors, my passion is orchids. When not in the garden, I'm out bird watching, a hobby that has gotten me to some lovely parts of the world.
Plants→Chelone→Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
|Plant Habit:||Herb/Forb |
|Life cycle:||Perennial |
|Sun Requirements:||Full Sun |
Full Sun to Partial Shade
|Water Preferences:||Wet |
|Soil pH Preferences:||Slightly acid (6.1 – 6.5) |
Neutral (6.6 – 7.3)
|Minimum cold hardiness:||Zone 3 -40 °C (-40 °F) to -37.2 °C (-35) |
|Maximum recommended zone:||Zone 8b |
|Plant Height :||1.5 to 5 feet, usually 2 to 4 feet|
|Plant Spread :||about 2 feet wide|
|Leaves:||Other: 3 to 6" long, opposite, lanceolate, and toothed |
|Flower Color:||Lavender |
|Flower Time:||Summer |
Late summer or early fall
|Uses:||Cut Flower |
|Wildlife Attractant:||Bees |
|Resistances:||Flood Resistant |
|Propagation: Seeds:||Needs specific temperature |
Days to germinate: 14 to 30
|Propagation: Other methods:||Division |
|Pollinators:||Moths and Butterflies |
|Containers:||Not suitable for containers |
The book "How to Know the Wildflowers" (1922) by Mrs William Starr Dana has the author appreciating this plant for always being where it is supposed to be. She remarks at finding flowers that are supposed to be in wet places being found in dry sites and vice versa. But not the Turtlehead. She states that she does not ever remember seeing a Turtlehead "which had not gotten as close to a stream or marsh or a moist ditch as it well could without actually wetting its feet." She considers the flowers more striking than pretty and calls their common name "fairly appropriate". She also tells of hearing "unbotanical people" calling them "white closed gentians."
Turtleheads are members of the Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae) which includes Snapdragons that look similar. This perennial White Turtlehead is native to the Midwestern & Eastern US and southeast Canada in moist to wet soils in full sun to part-shade. It prefers a rich, organic soil as best. It does not do well with drought. It has fibrous roots. One can pinch or prune the plant down in May-June to keep it more compact. The Morton Arboretum recommends not cutting it down to the ground in fall. It is pollinated the most by Bumblebees, but some butterflies can also do it. The Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly likes to lay its eggs on the plant to bring forth caterpillars, which are the best food source for baby songbirds. It is supposed to be deer resistant, but one person here says it can be eaten by them. I have never seen this species sold by conventional nurseries or garden centers, which do sell cultivars of the Pink Turtlehead species that is native to the South US. It can be bought at some native plant nurseries as Prairie Nursery in WI and North Creek in PA and at some online mail order companies. It is a lovely perennial that should be used more.
The 2 lipped flowers resemble turtle heads. Distinctive flower shape reflected in genus name, a derivation of the greek chelone which means a tortoise.
A midwestern wildflower that lives in wet thickets, along streambanks and low ground.
Flowering in late summer and early fall, this plant has white snapdragon-like flowers on 2 to 4 foot tall stems. It occurs in moist, partly shaded places throughout the eastern US. In the garden, plant it in full sun to light shade in moist soil. An early summer pinching will keep it shorter and fuller.
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) is a larval host plant for the Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly. The white blooms attract butterflies, as well as worker bumble bees and long-horned bees. Turtlehead may also attract hummingbirds.
Native to eastern North America, Turtlehead grows best in moist, rich soils in part shade. Deer consider Turtlehead to be quite tasty.
The Plant Guide
Turtlehead is an excellent, sturdy, vertical perennial with rounded stems, medium texture and deep-green, boldly veined leaves on short stalks. Weather-resistant flowers are dark pink or purple, borne in short, dense, terminal spikes. The flowers are tubular 2-lipped blooms, with a sparse yellow beard inside each lower lip.
Noteworthy CharacteristicsBlooms for at least 4 weeks and will continue into late summer with deadheading. Great mid-border plant.
CareGrow in partial shade with moist soil. Will grow in dense shade, or even in full sun if soil is soggy. Tolerates heavy clay soils and will also grow in a bog garden.
PropagationFrom seed in early spring. Divide in spring. Root soft-tip cuttings in late spring or early summer.
ProblemsProne to powdery mildew, rust, fungal leaf spots, and damage from slugs and snails.
- Genus : Chelone
- Plant Height : 1 to 3 feet
- Plant Width : 1 to 3 feet
- Zones : 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
- Light : Full Sun to Partial Shade
- Bloom Time : Late Summer, Summer
- Moisture : Medium to Wet
- Maintenance : Moderate
- Plant Type : Perennials
- Flower Color : Pink
- Characteristics : Showy Foliage
- Plant Seasonal Interest : Spring Interest
Chelone — A funny name but a Sweet Flower
Open any gardening magazine or horticultural journal and you’ll find much attention devoted to the merits of drought and heat-tolerant plants in the ornamental landscape. That makes sense in view of our past few years’ warmer than normal, dry summers. But what if you don’t have a hot, dry, sunny site? Some gardeners have shady conditions coupled with damp or even soggy soil. For them, the challenge lies in identifying plants that like such growing conditions. Chelone is an ideal choice for just such a garden.
If you’re not familiar with Chelone, it’s pronounced kee-LO-nee, which rhymes with baloney. The name is derived from the Greek word for tortoise. The common name for this plant, turtlehead, is inspired by the quirky-looking tubular, two-lipped shape of the flowers. They call to mind an animal’s gaping mouth. The shape is also reminiscent of snapdragon blossoms, which is not surprising since the two plants are related.
Chelone’s glossy, dark green, simple, oval- to lance-shaped leaves have lightly toothed margins and appear opposite one another on stiff, weather-resistant stems. The handsome foliage and the plant’s tidy, upright habit present a perfect foil for the plant’s white or pink flowers. The combination is particularly winsome in either dappled sunlight or shade.
One of the best attributes of Chelone is that it blooms later than most perennials, bringing a fresh look and appeal to the late summer garden. The flowers are borne on terminal spikes or racemes at the top of the plant. The lower flowers open first and gradually open to the top of the raceme over a period of weeks. The flowering period can last 3 to 6 weeks or longer. Although not really necessary, a little deadheading can prolong the floral display.
Besides their resemblance to a turtle’s head, Chelone flowers have a unique botanical feature — a sterile stamen in addition to four fertile ones. The sterile stamen is useful in helping to identify the various Chelone species. For example, it is green in C. glabra, white in C. obliqua, and rose-tipped in C. lyonii.
The Chelone family includes the following species, all of which are native to the United States:
Chelone glabra, or white turtlehead, is the smallest of the species, topping out at about 2’ to 3’. It is widely distributed from Newfoundland to the north, Georgia to the south, and Mississippi to the west. The 1” long flowers are usually white or cream but may also be pale pink, pink-tinged, or green-tinged. Wildflower enthusiasts appreciate this plant because it attracts hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. In fact, C. glabra is the main larval host plant for the endangered Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly.
Chelone lyonii (Pink Turtlehead)
Chelone lyonii is commonly referred to as pink turtlehead, Lyon’s turtlehead, or Appalachian turtlehead. This 2’ to 4’ tall southern species is native to the higher Appalachian elevations of Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. It performs well in gardens with average or drier soil.
Chelone oblique (Red Turtlehead)
Chelone obliqua, or red turtlehead, has deep pink flowers and blooms earlier than C.glabra. This 2’ to 3’ tall plant is native to the Blue Ridge areas of Tennessee, Arkansas and Michigan and the Atlantic coastal plain, from South Carolina to Maryland. This is the most heat-tolerant of the Chelone species.
Several Chelone cultivars are also available commercially:
Chelone lyonii hybrid ‘Hot Lips’
‘Hot Lips’ is a 2’ to 4’ tall cultivar of C. lyonii. This popular cultivar has shiny dark-green foliage, red stems, and rose-pink flowers that bloom on dense terminal spikes. Pinch it back in May to produce a bushier plant.
Chelone is fairly easy to find in the plant nursery trade. Most well-stocked commercial nurseries carry at least one or two species. ‘Hot Lips’ and ‘Tiny Tortuga’ are two of the more popular cultivars and are also relatively easy to locate.
Chelone likes moist, neutral to slightly acid soil with a pH of 5.0 to 6.8. The soil should be amended with plenty of leaf mold and compost to help it retain moisture. Moisture is key to growing Chelone successfully. For drier sites, a thick layer of chopped leaves around the base of the plant will help hold moisture in the soil.
Ideally, this plant thrives best in a partially sunny site with evenly moist soil. It will, however, adapt to full sun and drier soil, particularly if the site is moist in the spring time. If grown in full shade, cut the plant back by about half in mid-spring to create a bushier, more compact plant. Otherwise, the stems may become leggy and flop over.
Give this plant some space to spread out. This low-care, native perennial wildflower naturalizes very easily. It grows slowly by rhizomes, eventually forming clumps or colonies up to 3’ wide depending on the species or cultivar. Once the clump reaches that size, it generally stops spreading. Fortunately, it does not spread aggressively and is not invasive.
Leave the spent foliage in place over winter and remove it in early spring. The standing foliage helps protect the plant’s crown from winter weather-related damage.
Chelone is a relatively problem-free perennial although slugs and snails may occasionally dine on the foliage. Otherwise, this plant has no serious pest problems. It is also a reasonably disease-free plant. However, it can develop powdery mildew in late summer if the soil dries out. Keeping the soil evenly moist helps to avoid the problem. Also, plenty of space should be allowed between plants to facilitate good air circulation.
As for deer and rabbits, most sources agree that these habitually destructive animals find Chelone distasteful and leave it alone. Other sources warn that Chelone is not immune from animal browsing. In my experience with this plant, it all depends on the specific animal population and the availability of other, more suitable food.
Chelone is easy to propagate by seeds, stem cuttings or division:
- Seeds – Harvest brown (ripe) seed pods and chill them at about 40°F for 6 weeks. The seeds require light for germination. Be patient, as germination may take several months. If sown in early spring, the plants should bloom their second year.
- Stem Cuttings – In late spring or early summer, root 4”to 6” long (one to two nodes) soft-wood stem cuttings in a moist medium at approximately 70°F.
- Division – Divide in early spring and plant divisions about 12” to 18” apart.
Propagate Chelone cultivars by either stem cuttings or root division in order to retain the specific characteristics of the cultivar. Propagation by seeds will not result in a clone of the mother plant.
USES IN THE LANDSCAPE
Chelone adds color to the ornamental garden late in the summer when many other perennials have finished blooming. It is an ideal companion for other moist soil loving plants such as leopard plant (Ligularia), rose mallow (Hibiscus), Astilbe, blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), flag iris, and various sedges (Carex species). Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium), monkshood (Aconitum), and ferns, such as lady fern (Athyrium) and regal fern (Osmunda regalis), are other interesting companions.
This plant looks best when planted in multiples rather than used as a single specimen. Also, it is best used in the landscape as a component of:
- Damp shade or woodland gardens
- Wildflower or native plant gardens
- Container gardens
- Rain gardens
- Bog gardens or other areas with poor drainage as well as along the periphery of ponds or streams
- The mixed border for fall color and interest. At 2’ to 3’ or more in height, it works best in the middle or toward the rear of the border.
While Chelone is a popular plant choice for any of the landscape scenarios mentioned, it also looks interesting in cut flower arrangements. The flower stalks should be cut when the buds on the top third portion of the flower spike are still closed. Once cut, the stalks take up a lot of water. However, the flowers will last about a week in the vase.
Armitage’s Native Plants for North American Gardens (Armitage, Allan M., 2006)
Flora of Virginia (Weakley, Alas S. Ludwig, J. Christopher and Townsend, John F., 2012)
Herbaceous Perennial Plants, A Treatise on their Identification, Culture, and Garden Attributes, Third Edition (Armitage, Allan M., 2008)
Native Plants of the Southeast (Mellichamp, Larry, 2014)
Perennials for Every Purpose (Hodgson, Larry, 2003)
Plant Propagation, (The American Horticultural Society, 1999)
“For the Birds, Butterflies and Hummingbirds: Creating Inviting Habitats, Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Publication HORT-59NP, www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/HORT-59-PDF
“Rare, Threatened and Endangered Animal Fact Sheet,” Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly
“Pollinator-Friendly Plants for the Northeast United States,” www.nrcs.usda.gov
“Rain Garden Plants,” VCE Publication 426-043, www.pubs.ext.vt.edu
“Wild Flowers of the United States,” uswildflowers.com
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