Late Blooming Turtlehead
If you are looking for a fall bloomer that brightens the garden for weeks on end, try planting turtlehead (Chelone obliqua). 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 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.
Some varieties of turtlehead also go by the common names balmony, bitter herb, codhead, fish mouth, shellflower, snakehead, and turtle bloom.
When to Grow Turtlehead
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. You can also divide and propagate the perennial in the spring. And warmer zones will have the best luck planting, cutting, and diving in early fall. Turtlehead is generally hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 8 and it blooms late summer and into fall. The plant can remain in bloom for 3 to 6 weeks, making it well worth the wait.
Working Time: 1 hour
Total Time: Up to 4 months for flowers
Material Cost: Under 50 dollars
What You'll Need
- Gardening gloves
- Garden trowel
- Turtlehead seed
- Potting soil
- Seedling trays or cell packs
- Soil amenders like compost and peat moss
- 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, or more, prepare your outside bed by working compost into the soil with a rake. If soil is compacted, add peat moss for aeration.
- Keep the outside bed continually moist with a garden hose or sprinkler while the plants set root and throughout their growing and blooming season.
- Once the plant has established itself, pinch the tips of each shoot to train the plant to grow bushy, producing a showy bloom.
- Mulch each fall with shredded leaves to maintain a moisture-retaining humus.
Tips for Growing Turtlehead
- Chelone 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.
- 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 sun tolerant.
- 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.
- Chelone likes a rich, slightly acidic soil pH of 5.0 to 6.8.
- Turtlehead looks best when planted in its native woodland setting. And, if it's happy there, it will slowly naturalize to form an exquisite groundcover.
- The varied colors of Chelone combine well with other late-season bloomers, like sedum, Joe Pye weed, and anemone. And since it likes moist soil, it naturally partners well with ferns.
- Turtlehead is rarely bothered by insects or disease. However, it can develop a powdery mildew due to moisture fluctuations. Keeping the plants evenly moist should alleviate this problem.
Suggested 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.