Turtlehead Plant Profile

pink chelone

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault 

Turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) is a clump-forming perennial that blooms in fall with hooded flowers that look similar to snapdragon blooms. The flower gets its name from its resemblance to a turtle's beak, but the genius name dates back to ancient Greece mythology and the nymph named Chelone. As the story goes, Chelone elected not to attend the marriage of Zeus and Hera (and in fact made a few derogatory comments about it). So, she and her house were tossed into a river, where she transformed into a tortoise who carried her house on her back.

Turtlehead, a native North American wildflower, favors boggy areas but can be cultivated in a partially shaded home garden, too. The plant's opposing dark green, oval leaves are slightly toothed. Its stems stand upright, even when in flower, and tubular-shaped flowers with two-lipped corolla (petals) form at the end of each stem. Most turtlehead plants reach a mature height of 2 to 3 feet and spread to form a cluster up to 3 feet wide.

Turtlehead is generally hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 8 and it blooms from mid-summer and into early fall. The plant can remain in bloom for 3 to 6 weeks, making it well worth the wait.

Botanical Name Chelone obliqua
Common Names Turtlehead, pink (red, rose) turtlehead, shellflower, balmony
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial 
Mature Size 2 to 3 feet, 1- to 2-foot spread
Sun Exposure Full sun to part shade
Soil Type Rich, moist to wet soil
Soil pH 5.0 to 6.8 (acidic to neutral)
Bloom Time July to September
Flower Color Rosy pink, purple, white
Hardiness Zones 5 to 9 (USDA)
Native Area Swampy areas of U.S. Midwest and Southeast
closeup of pink chelone flower
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault  
overhead view of chelone flower
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault 
chelone flowers
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault  
chelone flowers in a field
The Spruce / Adrienne Legault  

How to Grow Turtlehead

Turtlehead prefers moist soil in a location with filtered sun but has good tolerance for fairly shady conditions. It does not, however, like dry soil. When planted in a shady area, it may require staking to prevent it from flopping over; this is rarely necessary in sunny locations. In bright sun, a layer of leaf mulch will help keep the soil cool and moist.

Turtlehead looks best when planted in its native woodland setting. And, if it's happy there, it will slowly naturalize to form an exquisite ground cover. The varied colors of Chelone combine well with other late-season bloomers, like sedumJoe Pye weed, and anemone. And since it likes moist soil, it naturally partners well with many types of ferns.

Turtlehead is rarely bothered by insects or disease. However, it can develop powdery mildew due to moisture fluctuations. Keeping the plants evenly moist should alleviate this problem.

Growing from Seeds

Although often planted from potted nursery plants, turtlehead is relatively easy to grow from seeds. The best time to seed turtlehead, indoors or out, is in the spring. Gardeners in cold climates can start seeds indoors in a sunny window, and then transplant them into the ground as seedlings well after the last frost.

Sow seeds indoors in trays or cell packs filled with moist, sterile potting soil. Gently press the seeds into the soil and keep them constantly moist. Germination occurs in 3 to 5 weeks. Long after the final frost and when seedlings are at least 6 inches high, prepare your outside bed by working compost into the soil with a rake. If soil is compacted, add peat moss for aeration before transplanting the seedlings into the garden.

Light

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

Soil

Chelone likes a moist, rich, slightly acidic soil pH of 5.0 to 6.8.

Water

Keep the outside bed continually moist with a garden hose or sprinkler while the plants set root and throughout their growing and blooming season.

Turtlehead grows best when it gets regular water. This is vitally important during the first year as the plants establish themselves. The less water stress they suffer, the more they will thrive.

Temperature and Humidity

These plants prefer mild, moist conditions and will not do well in hot, arid climates. In warm climates, give the plants some shade and mulch the ground with a thick layer of leaf mulch or another organic material.

Fertilizer

Don't feed these plants in their first year of growth. After that, a yearly spring feeding with a balanced fertilizer is recommended.

Pruning Turtlehead

Once the plant has established itself, pinch the tips of each shoot to train the plant to grow bushy, producing a showy bloom. If your plants start to get floppy, prune or pinch back the stems of established plants in mid-spring. The plant will become more compact, but fuller and showier.

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

Propagating Turtlehead

Turtlehead is easily propagated by lifting the clumps and dividing the root mass. In cooler climates, this is best done in the early spring. In warmer zones, you will have the best luck dividing in early fall. 

Varieties of Turtlehead

  • While not as showy as some of the other varieties, Chelone glabra (white turtlehead or balmony) produces fragrant white flowers and makes a great garden accent, coming in at 2 to 3 feet tall. 
  • Pink turtlehead has long stems that give this species an open, bushy appearance. Flowers range from light pink to deep rose to red. More adaptable to dry sites than most varieties, this plant grows 1 to 3 feet tall. Named cultivars, like 'Hot Lips' have intense pink flowers, red stems, and glossy leaves.
  • Red turtlehead is similar to pink turtlehead, but with longer, narrower leaves. This variety is the best choice for warmer climates and it also stands up very well to cold winters. Despite its name, there is a lovely white variety, too.