Ask A Master Gardener – Turtlehead: A Snappy Addition to Your Garden

Authored by: Carol Shirk

Photo credit: C. Shirk

Now that we moving past fall and into winter, do you look back and realize that your fall landscape was missing some color?  If you want more than just mums and asters to brighten your fall days, consider Turtlehead (Chelone) as a spectacular addition.

Turtlehead is a dependable fall-blooming flower that gets its common name from blooms that resembles a turtle head with a slightly open mouth.  The species name, Chelone, also has a turtle connection; it comes from a nymph in Greek mythology who was punished for being disrespectful to the gods and was turned into a turtle.

There are six species in the genus of Chelone that are native to North America.  They are often found in moist areas such as bogs, swamps, moist woods, thickets, along stream beds, or other wetland areas.  Not all of the six species are native to the Midwest, but can still be grown in our landscapes.  When planting them, chose moist sites with full sun.  They will tolerate some shade and less moisture once established.  They also work quite well in a rain garden, paired with a golden-leaved sedge (Carex) or purple monkshood (Actonium).

This plant will grow 2-3 feet tall and will spread slowly from rhizomes.  Plants can be multiplied by division in the spring, or by collecting the brown seed pods and sowing them in the fall.  The seeds require light to germinate, so do not cover deeply.

The dark green, shiny, serrated leaves are attractive and seldom marred by disease.  The bitter foliage is not particularly attractive to deer.  The plants stand without staking and are beautiful all season without the blooms.  Consider pinching back the stem ends in the spring to reduce height and produce a more compact plant.  Once the snapdragon-like blooms emerge in late summer/fall, the plants really shine. Grown in masses, borders, or naturalized, they can make quite a statement.

Red turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) has pink to nearly red flowers and is native to an area from Minnesota to Florida, making it thrive in zones 3-9.  White turtlehead, (Chelone glabra), with white or slightly pink flowers, hails from the east, growing from Newfoundland to Georgia.  It is hardy in zones 3-8.  Pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) with light to dark pink blooms, has a very specific range in the mountains of central Appalachia; however, they are also hardy in zones 3-8.

Turtlehead is an excellent pollinator plant. It attracts multiple bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, and an occasional hummingbird.  It is a larval host for Checkerspot butterflies, including the Gorgone Checkerspot, a butterfly of special concern in Wisconsin because of reduced numbers.

The mouth of the turtlehead flower is somewhat constricted, making it a bit of a tight fit for some bumblebees.  It is nature entertainment at it’s best to watch as they wiggle their tiny selves into the flower and back out again.  One can almost imagine a cartoon being made as you watch the process.

Turtlehead will appreciate some composted leaf mulch in the fall, but requires little else for maintenance.  The blooms will last well into the fall months and bring color to an otherwise dwindling garden.

Be aware that some mass marketed Chelone obliqua may be hybrids of unknown parentage.  There are a number of named hybrids and cultivars, so make certain to buy from a reputable source.

Carol Shirk

Master Gardener Volunteer


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