Chelone - Growing the Late Blooming Turtlehead.

  • 01 of 02

    Chelone Plants

    Chelone obliqua, Pink Turtlehead, in bloom.
    Similar to snapdragon flowers, the blooms of Chelone are almost animated. Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    Overview and Description

    If you are looking for fall blooming flowers that brighten the garden for weeks on end, take a look at Chelone. The flowers in the Chelone genus go by the common name of turtlehead. It's easy to see the flower's resemblance to a turtle's beak, but they tell me the real reason for their common name goes back to ancient Greece. Chelone was a nymph in Greek mythology who elected not to attend the marriage of Zeus and Hera, or made some derogatory comment about...MORE it. She, and her house, were tossed into a river and she was changed into a tortoise who carried her house on her back. Well, I can't vouch for the myth, but the flowers do seem to want to snap out at passersby.

    Chelone are native American wildflowers that favor boggy areas and the sides of streams and lakes, but can be made at home in just about any partially shaded site. Not all species are well suited to the garden and as yet, there are few cultivars.

    The best explanation I've heard for how to pronounce Chelone is that it rhymes with baloney. (The "Ch" is prounounced like cha-cha-cha.)

    • Leaves: Opposite dark green, oval leaves are slightly toothed. Stems tend to be upright, even when in flower, giving the plants a bushy appearance. Flowers form at the tips of the stems.
    • Flowers: Flowers are 1 - 1 1/2 in. long and have a flattened tubular shape formed by the two-lipped corolla (petals), which gives them the snapping beak appearance.

    Botanical Name

    Chelone spp.

    Common Name:


    Some varieties also go by the common names: balmony, bitter herb, codhead, fish mouth, shellflower, snakehead, snake mouth, and turtle bloom.

    Hardiness Zone

    Generally hardy from USDA Hardiness Zones 4 - 8.

    Sun Exposure

    Being a woodland flower, Chelone does best in partial shade, but it will grow in full sun, if the site is moist. Pink turtlehead is considered the most sun tolerant.

    Mature Size

    There is some variability within species, but most turtleheads reach a mature height of 2 - 3 ft. and spread 1 - 3 ft.

    Bloom Period

    Chelone blooms late summer into fall. Plants can remain in bloom for 3 to 6 weeks. Worth the wait.

    Suggested Varieties

    • Chelone glabra, White Turtlehead, Balmony - Not as showy as others, but fragrant. Called White turtlehead, but some varieties have a wash of pink or purple. Not as long lasting as other varieties. 2 - 3 ft. tall.


    • Chelone lyonii, Pink Turtlehead - Long stems give this species an open, bushy appearance. Flowers can be pink, deep rose or very close to red. More adaptable to dry sites than most. 1 - 3 ft. tall. You can find named cultivars, such as 'Hot Lips', which has intense pink flowers, glossy leaves that start out red and red stems.


    • Chelone obliqua, Red Turtlehead - Very similar to pink turtlehead, with longer, narrower leaves. This is probably the best choice for warmer climates, but it also stands up very well to cold winters. Despite its name, there is a lovely white variety, C. obliqua 'alba'. 2 - 3 ft. tall

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  • 02 of 02

    Growing Chelone

    Turtlehead in full bloom.
    There is no shortage of flowers on a Chelone plant. It waits all season to bloom and it seems to want to make the most of the time it has. Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    Growing Tips

    Soil: Chelone likes a rich, but well-draining soil and a slightly acidic soil pH of 5.0 to 6.8.

    Planting: Start by seed, stem cuttings, plant or division. The best time to seed, indoors or out, is definitely in the spring. Gardeners in cold climates can also divide them in the spring, but warmer zones will have the best luck in early fall.

    Chelone grows best when it gets regular water, but that is vitally important the first year, as the plants get established. The less water stress...MORE they suffer, the less problems they will have.

    Maintenance: Turtleheads couldn't be easier to care for. They are extremely well-behaved clump forming perennials. They tend to reach a spread of about 3 ft. and stop, so division is not really necessary, unless you want more plants.

    To keep the soil a moisture retaining humus, mulch with shredded leaves. If you find your plants grow floppy, which can happen in shaded sites, you can prune or pinch back the stems in mid-spring. The plant will be shorter, but more compact.

    Since they bloom late in the season, there is no reason to deadhead. You can leave the flowers to dry and collect the seeds, if you like.

    Waiting until spring to cut back the foliage seems to help them survive cold winters better.

    Pests & Problems

    Turtlehead is rarely bothered by insects or disease. They can develop powdery mildew, but that is usually because of moisture fluctuation. Keep them evenly moist and it shouldn't be a problem.

    Design Suggestions

    Chelone looks best when it is planted in its native setting; a woodland. If it's happy there, it will slowly naturalize and form an exquisite groundcover. However it would make a nice addition to any shade garden - and who wouldn't like more color in their shade garden?

    All the colors of Chelone combine well with other late season bloomers, like Sedum, Joe Pye Weed and Anemones. I particularly like them combined with frothy flowers like goat's beard and Astilbe. And since they like moist soil, natural partners are ferns.

    Chelone stems also make nice cut flowers and are attractive to bees and hummingbirds.