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Overview and Description of Turtlehead
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 say 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 at least made some... derogatory comment about it. She, and her house, were tossed into a river, where she was changed into a tortoise who carried her house on her back. Whether or not you believe the myth, 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.
Some varieties also go by the common names: balmony, bitter herb, codhead, fish mouth, shellflower, snakehead, snake mouth, and turtle bloom.
Turtlehead is generally hardy from USDA Hardiness Zones 4 - 8.
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.
There is some variability within species, but most turtleheads reach a mature height of 2 - 3 ft. and spread 1 - 3 ft.
Chelone blooms late summer into fall. Plants can remain in bloom for 3 to 6 weeks. Worth the wait.
Suggested Varieties of Turtlehead
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- 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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Growing and Caring for Turtlehead Plants
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 and that is vitally important the first year, as the plants get... established. The less water stress 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 of Turtlehead
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 with Turtlehead Plants
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.