Chelone Plants, the Turtlehead Flower

Turtlehead Flowers
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How do you pronounce the plant named after a nymph from a Greek myth? Here’s a hint: it rhymes with a kid’s favorite sandwich meat. Cha-lo-nee gets its name from the unfortunate mythological character who was turned into turtle when she refused to attend the wedding of Zeus and Hera, thus the name turtlehead.

Either chelone got off easy, or she resembles the prettiest turtle around. The deer resistant turtlehead plants feature tubular-shaped flowers at the end of summer that attract butterflies to the garden.

Get to Know the Chelone Genus

The foliage of turtlehead plants is smooth, sometimes shiny, and toothed. Foliage is favored by many caterpillar species, so it can appear quite tattered by the end of the growing season. New growth can have a bronze tint, before maturing to a deep green hue. Flowers grow in a plump tubular shape, and the lower petals of the blossoms have a fuzzy beard. Plants are two to three feet tall, spreading to one foot.

Turtlehead plants are part of the Scrophulariaceae family, which also includes the similar looking snapdragons, foxgloves, monkey flowers, and penstemon. In spite of being a relatively unknown flower to many, the plant has several nicknames. Native Americans referred to it as bitter herb, and used it as a laxative, which is not recommended today. In addition to turtlehead and turtle bloom, other colorful monikers include snakehead and fishmouth flower. The plants are also known as balmony.

Turtlehead plants grow best in zones 4-7. The plants are native to the Eastern half of the United States, and they fare poorly in desert areas and in the Southwest.

How to Plant Turtlehead Flowers

Turtlehead plants are easy for the moderately experienced gardener to start from seed. They will reach transplant size in approximately six weeks, and will flower in the first season in August and September. While you wait for those first eagerly anticipated blooms, add some beauty to the transition with a half dozen impatiens and a handful of caladium bulbs: they thrive in the same moist, shaded conditions your chelone plants will.

Partial sun is best, but chelone plants can adapt to full sun or dense shade if the soil and moisture conditions are right. If you're planting your turtlehead flowers close to a structure, consider the east side of the building, which will provide plants with that gentle morning sun that aids photosynthesis without scorching leaves.

Turtlehead Flower Care

Plants like evenly moist soil heavily amended with leaf mold and compost. It's nearly impossible to over mulch turtlehead plants with the leaf mulch they love. Pile it deeply around the plants as if you were tucking in a child with fluffy blankets.

Never allow turtlehead plants to dry out. Drip irrigation or soaker hoses will keep plants watered efficiently throughout the summer. Remember that full shade usually comes from a dense tree canopy, and with that comes thirsty tree roots. Even after a heavy rain, the tree branches may block much of the moisture from even reaching the ground, while a network of tree roots can quickly soak up the rest. It's up to you to create the boggy situation that will encourage your chelone plants to multiply.

If you choose to place your turtlehead plants in deep shade, pinch them back in the spring to keep them compact, so they won’t flop over.

Garden Design With Turtlehead Flowers

Turtlehead plants look somewhat awkward when planted as a single specimen. The plants look best planted in groups of five plants or more. If you’re looking for a streamside plant or a rain garden specimen, turtlehead is for you, but they are at home in the suburban landscape paired with other moisture lovers like lobelia or lady’s tresses.

Combine turtlehead flowers with astilbe plants to achieve the perfect companion planting for color in a wet, full shade situation. If you have a a shady spot that doesn't bring to mind a bog, make it so by sinking a pond liner or even a plastic child's wading pool into the soil to trap that precious moisture.

Although most gardeners wouldn’t designate turtlehead as a cutting garden plant, the blooms do make good cut flowers. Cut them when the buds on the top 1/3 portion of the flower spike are still closed. The cut flowers take up a lot of water and will last about a week in the vase.

Turtlehead Varieties to Try

Several turtlehead species are recognized as native wildflowers, but not all are sold in cultivation. Named varieties are showier than native species, and aren't threatened from over-harvesting.

  • Chelone glabra: White flowers that glow in dark corners
  • Chelone lyonii: Pink flowers
  • Chelone obliqua: Red flowers
  • Cuthbert’s turtlehead: Uncommon native plant; features yellow bearded purple flowers
  • Hot Lips: Dark green foliage, red stems, and rose-pink flowers
  • Pink Temptation: A compact variety, topping out at 15 inches