Turtle Head Plant: How To Grow And Care For Chelone Plants

Chelone (kay-LOH-nee) is a perennial wildflower that grows freely throughout the eastern United States. The plant is a member of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae or Plantaginaceae). Angelonia and Veronica are also in the family.

In the wild, it is found growing in damp settings, but seems to prefer growing along stream banks or in wet ditches.

Blooms of the Turtles Head plant (Chelone)

The botanical name is Greek and refers to the fact that the flower of the plant resembles a turtle’s beak. It is a reference to Greek mythology. In the story a nymph called Chelone transformed into a turtle through a series of unusual events.

You may also hear some varieties of this plant referred to as:

  • Turtlehead
  • Turtle Bloom
  • Bitter Herb
  • Fish Mouth
  • Shellflower
  • Snakehead
  • Balmony
  • Codhead

Turtlehead Plant – Chelone Care

Size & Growth

The turtlehead plant can attain a height of 2′ to 3′ feet tall and spread as wide as 3′ feet.

The Chelone obliqua Turtlehead is clump-forming. They display their hooded blooms (resembling snapdragon blooms) in late summer and early fall.

Bitter Herb has deep dark green, toothed, oval leaves. The leaves grow in an opposing pattern on tall, rigid, upright stems. The shoots end with clusters of hooded tubular flowers.

Flowering & Fragrance

Turtlehead flowers begin late in the summertime and continue throughout the early autumn. This late bloomer usually stays in bloom for up to six weeks.

The flowers have two lipped petals and are tubular in shape.

When blooming is complete, you do not need to deadhead as these plants will not bloom again. Instead, leave the blossoms in place and collect the seeds after the flowers have dried.

Light & Temperature

This woodland flower is happiest in a setting with part shade. But if provided with ample water, it can grow in full sun.

Turtlehead plants are winter hardy in USDA hardiness zones 4 through 8.

Watering & Feeding

Fish Mouth needs consistent watering to do its best. This is especially true during the plants’ first year. The plants need ample moisture to become established.

There is no need to fertilize during the first year. In the second year provide a feeding of balanced 10–10–10 fertilizer very early in the springtime.

Soil & Transplanting

Shellflower likes soil with a neutral to slightly acidic soil pH level (5.0 – 6.8). Remember this is a boggy place plant, and it will do well in mucky or wet soil.

Grooming & Maintenance

When your Snakehead plants have become well established, encourage bushier growth by pinching back the tips of the shoots. This will also encourage showier blooms.

If plants become too tall and leggy, you can also pinch back the stems.

In the autumn, provide a thick mulch of shredded leaves. This will  help the plants keep moisture throughout the wintertime.

How To Propagate Turtlehead Chelone

You can propagate Balmony by sowing seeds or through division. Sow seeds indoors or outdoors early in early spring. 

If you live in a very cold climate, it is best to begin your seeds indoors late in the winter. In warmer climates, sow seeds directly in the ground after all danger of frost has passed.

You can also propagate Turtlehead plants through division. Early in the springtime, divide the plants when 1″ inch tall shoots appear. It’s best to do this during cloudy, cool weather. 

Remember to keep the plants’ roots moist throughout the operation. Prepare a bucket of water to keep your divided plants wet while you work. Be sure the bucket is not sitting in full sunlight.

Dig up established plants and divide the roots with a very sharp tool. Replant those you want to stay in place, and put those you want to move into your bucket.

It’s smart to have holes already dug and prepared for your divided Turtlehead plants. 

  • Place a couple of teaspoons of bonemeal into the bottom of each prepared hole.
  • Center the divided plants into their prepared holes
  • Backfill with soil and tamp it firmly in place. 
  • Water generously
  • Remember to keep the soil very moist so plants can become successfully established.

Turtlehead Plant Pests or Diseases

These native plants have very little trouble with disease or insects. Fluctuations in moisture levels can cause problems with mildew

Provide consistent moisture throughout the growing season, and keep the soil evenly moist.

Is The Turtlehead Considered Toxic or Poisonous?

This medicinal plant is not toxic, but should be handled with care.

Are Turtle Heads Considered Invasive?

This native plant is not invasive in North America.

Suggested Turtle Head Plant – Chelone Uses

Turtlehead is a great choice to bring bursts of color to your garden late in the season. Useful wild gardens, shade gardens or as cut flowers.

The most common varieties include:

  • White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) White flowers or the palest pink. Grows 2′-3′ feet tall.
  • Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyoni) Rose pink flowers, Grow 3′ feet tall.
  • Rose Turtlehead (Chelone ubiiqua) Deep pink flowers the latest bloomer of the 3 listed.

The plant does best in moist soil in a woodland setting. If left alone, it creates a wonderful groundcover in a woodland area, a bog garden, or planted around a backyard pond.

Chelone has many uses in folk medicine. It is said that a tonic created using this plant can be effective in stimulating appetite, treating indigestion, relieving constipation, deworming, and reducing inflammation and itching.

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