How to Grow Turtlehead Plant

pink chelone

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault 

Turtlehead is a clump-forming perennial plant that blooms in fall with hooded flowers that look similar to snapdragon blooms. The flower gets its unique 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, 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. The plant's opposing dark green, oval leaves are slightly toothed and its stems stand upright, even when in flower.

Turtlehead is best planted in the spring or summer to give the plant time to establish itself. A fast-growing plant, it is generally hardy in USDA zones 4 through 8, and blooms by mid-summer or early fall. The plant can remain in bloom for three to six weeks, making it well worth the wait.

Botanical Name Chelone  obliqua
Common Names Turtlehead
Plant Type Herbaceous perennial 
Mature Size 2–3 ft. tall, 1–2 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full sun, partial shade
Soil Type Rich, moist
Soil pH Neutral to acidic
Bloom Time Summer, early fall
Flower Color Pink, purple, white
Hardiness Zones 5–9 (USDA)
Native Area North America
Toxicity Non-toxic
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  

Turtlehead Care

Turtlehead plants prefer moist soil in a location with filtered sun, but they also have a good tolerance for shady conditions. One thing they do not like, however, is dry soil. In bright sun, a layer of leaf mulch will help keep the soil cool and moist. When planted in a shady area, they may require staking to prevent them from flopping over, though this is rarely necessary in sunnier locations.

Light

As a woodland flower, turtlehead does best in partial shade—the setting is most similar to its natural environment, where it typically grows in the filtered light beneath a canopy of trees. However, the plant can grow in full sun as well, as long as its soil is kept continually moist. Pink turtlehead is considered the most tolerant varietal of bright sun.

Soil

Turtlehead plants prefer moist, organically rich soil, with a slightly acidic soil pH level between 5.0 and 6.8.

Water

Keep your turtlehead plants continually moist while the plants set root and throughout their growing and blooming season. As a general rule of thumb, turtlehead grows best when it gets regular water, and it is especially 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 your turtlehead plants during their first year of growth. After that, a yearly spring feeding with a balanced liquid fertilizer is recommended to encourage blooms.

Varieties of Turtlehead

There are several cultivars and hybrids of the turtlehead plant. Some of the more well-known ones include:

  • Chelone glabra (white turtlehead or balmony): While not as showy as some of the other varieties, white turtlehead produces fragrant ivory blooms and makes for a great garden accent, growing to be between two and threefeet tall. 
  • Chelone Iyonii (pink turtlehead): This varietal has long stems that give the species an open, bushy appearance. Its flowers range from light pink to deep rose to red and it's more adaptable to dry climates than most other varieties.
  • Red turtlehead: Red turtlehead is similar to pink turtlehead, but with longer, more narrow 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.

Pruning Turtlehead

Once your turtlehead plant has established itself, pinch the tips of each shoot to train the plant to grow bushy and produce showy blooms. If your plants start to get floppy, prune or pinch back the stems of established plants in mid-spring—this will cause the plant to 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. Divide the plant when its shoots stand at least an inch high, and form into separate clumps that have at least three established shoots in each section.

Place each division into its new hole and water vigorously until established. Hold off on feeding your divisions until their second year.

How to Grow Turtlehead From Seed

Although often planted from potted nursery plants, turtlehead is actually 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 on a sunny windowsill, then transplant them into the ground as seedlings well after the last frost.

Sow seeds indoors using trays or cell packs filled with moist, sterile potting soil. Gently press the seeds into the soil and keep them constantly moist—germination will occur in three to five weeks. Long after the final frost, and when seedlings are at least six 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.

Common Pests and Diseases

Turtlehead is rarely bothered by insects or disease. However, it can develop powdery mildew due to moisture fluctuations in its environment. Keeping the plants evenly moist and watering them at the base of the plant (versus on the foliage) should alleviate this problem.