How to Grow and Care for Turtlehead Plant

pink chelone

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault 

Turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) is a clump-forming perennial wildflower native to eastern North America. Its hooded flowers look similar to snapdragon blooms. The flower gets its common name from its resemblance to a turtle's beak, but the genus name Chelone dates back to ancient Greece mythology. As the story goes, a nymph by the name of 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.

The different turtlehead species share similar growing conditions but vary in their size and appearance, bloom color and time, and native range. Red turtlehead (Turtlehead obliqua) blooms in midsummer or early fall. It 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 5 through 9. The plant can remain in bloom for three to six weeks, making it well worth the wait.

Common name Turtlehead, red turtlehead
Botanical Name Chelone obliqua
Family Plantaginaceae
Plant Type Herbaceous, perennial 
Mature Size 2–3 ft. tall, 1–2 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Rich, moist
Soil pH Neutral, acidic
Bloom Time Summer, fall
Flower Color Pink, purple, white
Hardiness Zones 5–9 (USDA)
Native Area North America
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 species most tolerant 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. For the amount to use, follow the product label instructions.

Varieties of Turtlehead

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

  • Chelone obliqua 'Alba": White-flowered cultivar that blooms in late summer.
  • Chelone obliqua 'Tiny Tortuga': A dwarf cultivar with pink-rose blooms in late summer to early fall.
  • Chelone glabra (white turtlehead or balmony): While not as showy as some of the other turtleheads, white turtlehead produces fragrant ivory blooms and makes for a great garden accent. It blooms in late summer through early fall.
  • Chelone glabra 'Black Ace': A cultivar named after its almost black foliage in the spring. It blooms in late summer.
  • Chelone Iyonii (pink turtlehead): This variety 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 tolerant of dry conditions than the other turtleheads. Bloom time is in the late summer.
  • Chelone Iyonii 'Hot Lips': Pink flowers in late summer and fall

Pruning Turtlehead

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.

Propagating Turtlehead

Turtlehead is easily propagated by division. The best time in cooler climates is early spring when its shoots stand at least one inch high. In warmer zones you will have the best luck dividing in early fall.

  1. Lift the clump with a shovel. Separate it into smaller clumps that have at least three established shoots in each section.
  2. For each section, dig a hole the depth of the clump and place the clump in it. Backfill it with soil and gently press down the areas around the plant.
  3. Water it well and keep the soil moist at all times until the new plant is 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. Some species, such as Chelone glabra, require cold stratification to germinate. The seed package usually indicates whether cold stratification is required, and for how long.

The best time to seed red 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 diseases.

How to Get Turtlehead to Bloom

Once your turtlehead plant has established itself, pinch the tips of each shoot to train the plant to grow bushy and produce showy blooms. 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.

Common Problems with Turtlehead

The plant 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.

FAQ
  • Do turtlehead plants spread?

    Over time, the rhizomes of the turtlehead slowly form clumps about 1 foot wide but it does not spread much wider than that.

  • Are turtleheads invasive?

    Turtleheads are native to North America and as such, they are not invasive. In fact, they are important host plants for Baltimore checkerspot butterflies whose larvae feed on the leaves. Turtlehead also attracts bees and hummingbirds so it is an excellent plant for a pollinator garden.

  • Is turtlehead plant toxic to dogs?

    Turtlehead is not known to be toxic to dogs.