Turtlehead Flower – Facts, Grow and Care, Identification


White Turtlehead is a moisture-loving native plant that can be found in Eastern North America.  It is late blooming, from August through October depending on weather conditions.  Generally the blooms are white, but can be a pinkish/purple color too.

white turtlehead flower

I have found this plant growing in moist conditions, under the shade of Spicebush, Tulip Poplar, and Black Walnut.  It was blooming near Joe-Pye Weed and Ironweed, making for a nice ‘woodland’ wonderland walk in September with my kids.

 Facts

  • The common name ‘Turtlehead’ comes from the bloom resembling the head of a turtle
  • White Turtlehead is hardy from USDA zones 3-8, check your USDA zone hereOpens in a new tab.
  • Turtlehead is a host plant to the Baltimore Checkerspot
  • White turtlehead flower can be a unique solution to common gardening problems – such as “What can I grow in this shady/wet area?”
  • The Scientific Name of White Turtle Head is Chelone glabra

White Turtlehead Physical Description

You will find this plant blooming anywhere from August through November depending on garden zone.  Typically in shady, wet areas. Depending on conditions, it could be 2-4′ tall.

Stalk / Stem

The stalk is several feet tall, and generally won’t have any branching.  It will be medium green in color.

Leaves

Leaves are lance shaped and several inches long by 1/2-1″ wide.  They will be opposite.  However, as you move up the stalk each set of opposite leaves will be rotated 90 degrees.  This is a pretty unique characteristic that can allow you to identify it prior to blooming.

Leaf size will be 3-6″ long, by 1-2″ wide.  The edge will be serrated.turtlehead leaves Chelone glabra

Flower

Flowers are approximately 1″ long and tubular with two lips.  There will be multiple blooms on a stalk.  The blooming period is approximately 1 month.

Several weeks after blooming, the seed heads will dry out and open up (sometimes making a small burst).  Multiple seeds that are thin and disc-like will be distributed.  They can be blown by the wind, or carried off by water.

Root

White Turtlehead has a tap-root and rhizome roots.  The rhizome roots allow it to form small colonies.

White Turtlehead Reference Table

Common Name White Turtlehead
Scientific name Chelone glabra
Bloom Time Late Summer / Early Fall
Bloom Duration Approximately 4 weeks
Color White
Bloom Size Small white tubular flowers, resembling the head of a turtle
Characteristics Multiple blooms on a flowering stalk.  Blooms start at the bottom and work their way to the top.  There will be multiple clusters of blooms along the stalk.
Height 2-4’ (60-120 cm)
Spacing/Spread 2’ (60 cm)
Light Requirements Partial Shade
Soil Types Clay, Loam
Moisture Moist to Medium
Maintenance None.  Cut back in Spring after insects have emerged
Typical Use Rain Garden, Along creeks and ponds
Fauna Associations Butterflys, hummingbirds
Larval Host Baltimore CheckerspotOpens in a new tab.
Sowing Depth 0-1/8” (0-3 mm)
Stratification 4 months stratification if possible
Native Range USDA Zones 3-8
Notes

White Turtlehead Growing Conditions

White Turtlehead prefers partial sun and medium to moist soil.  If you are planning to grow this in your garden, you may need to water it if the area is prone to drying out during droughts.

For soil, it can tolerate a wide variety as long as it doesn’t dry out and has a organic matter present.  So, I would not plant this in sandy soil unless it was near a stream.

How to care for Turtlehead Chelone glabra

The primary concern with growing White Turtlehead is making sure that it has access to moisture.  Since it is native to North America, it is generally tough.  If planting in full shade though, the stalk may be a bit weak and flop over.  To avoid it flopping over too much, you can cut it back in June to 2/3 of it’s height.  This will reduce the overall height and reduce the likeliness of it bending over during blooming later in the season.

Maintenance

No maintenance required except ensuring access to water.  Supplemental compost can be beneficial in early Spring (as with all plants).

How to grow White Turtlehead from seed

Seed Collection

Collect seed heads several weeks after blooming, when the capsules begin to turn brown.  Allow them to dry in a paper bag for several weeks until they begin to open up.  Then, store in a refrigerator in a sealed container until planting.

turtlehead seeds Chelone glabra
Seed heads and seeds of White Turtlehead, Chelone glabra

Stratifying the seeds

The seeds of White Turtlehead need several months of cold moist stratification.  So, plant them early for winter sowing in November or December.  Alternatively you can stratify them in a damp paper towel sealed in a zip-lock bag.

Planting the seeds

Seeds should be planted just into the surface and kept moist.  It needs sunlight to germinate.

Fill pots with a seed starting mix, or potting soil.  I generally plant 3-5 seeds per pot, and barely cover.  I then put a couple more seeds on top of the soil and press them firmly into it.  This is because when planting small seeds shallow, I inevitably will water them too roughly causing disturbance.  The extra seeds can help ensure some germination.

Alternatively, you can direct sow the seed in the fall.  Just prepare the area by getting bare soil via raking or other means.  Scatter the seed, and walk all over it to ensure good contact.  If the area is appropriate for this plant, it will germinate in the Spring.

Caring for the seedlings

Keep the seedlings in a partial shaded area and moist.  Do not let these dry out.  Once the plant is several inches tall, transplant to its final location.

Garden Uses

White Turtlehead can be a great addition to a rain garden, or shady / woodland garden.  It can grow pretty well on the North side of a house that is moist.

Fauna

Butterflies and bumble bees will pollinate White Turtlehead, as well as the occasional butterfly.  But, bumblebees are the primary pollinatorsOpens in a new tab. of White Turtlehead.  This plant is the larval host for the Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly.

Rabbits and deer generally don’t bother White Turtlehead, as the foliage has a strong bitter taste.  Although, if there is an overpopulation of white tailed deer, they will browse TurtleheadOpens in a new tab..

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Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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