Chelone — A funny name but a Sweet Flower
Open any gardening magazine or horticultural journal and you’ll find much attention devoted to the merits of drought and heat-tolerant plants in the ornamental landscape. That makes sense in view of our past few years’ warmer than normal, dry summers. But what if you don’t have a hot, dry, sunny site? Some gardeners have shady conditions coupled with damp or even soggy soil. For them, the challenge lies in identifying plants that like such growing conditions. Chelone is an ideal choice for just such a garden.
If you’re not familiar with Chelone, it’s pronounced kee-LO-nee, which rhymes with baloney. The name is derived from the Greek word for tortoise. The common name for this plant, turtlehead, is inspired by the quirky-looking tubular, two-lipped shape of the flowers. They call to mind an animal’s gaping mouth. The shape is also reminiscent of snapdragon blossoms, which is not surprising since the two plants are related.
Chelone’s glossy, dark green, simple, oval- to lance-shaped leaves have lightly toothed margins and appear opposite one another on stiff, weather-resistant stems. The handsome foliage and the plant’s tidy, upright habit present a perfect foil for the plant’s white or pink flowers. The combination is particularly winsome in either dappled sunlight or shade.
One of the best attributes of Chelone is that it blooms later than most perennials, bringing a fresh look and appeal to the late summer garden. The flowers are borne on terminal spikes or racemes at the top of the plant. The lower flowers open first and gradually open to the top of the raceme over a period of weeks. The flowering period can last 3 to 6 weeks or longer. Although not really necessary, a little deadheading can prolong the floral display.
Besides their resemblance to a turtle’s head, Chelone flowers have a unique botanical feature — a sterile stamen in addition to four fertile ones. The sterile stamen is useful in helping to identify the various Chelone species. For example, it is green in C. glabra, white in C. obliqua, and rose-tipped in C. lyonii.
The Chelone family includes the following species, all of which are native to the United States:
Chelone glabra, or white turtlehead, is the smallest of the species, topping out at about 2’ to 3’. It is widely distributed from Newfoundland to the north, Georgia to the south, and Mississippi to the west. The 1” long flowers are usually white or cream but may also be pale pink, pink-tinged, or green-tinged. Wildflower enthusiasts appreciate this plant because it attracts hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. In fact, C. glabra is the main larval host plant for the endangered Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly.
Chelone lyonii is commonly referred to as pink turtlehead, Lyon’s turtlehead, or Appalachian turtlehead. This 2’ to 4’ tall southern species is native to the higher Appalachian elevations of Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. It performs well in gardens with average or drier soil.
Chelone obliqua, or red turtlehead, has deep pink flowers and blooms earlier than C. glabra. This 2’ to 3’ tall plant is native to the Blue Ridge areas of Tennessee, Arkansas and Michigan and the Atlantic coastal plain, from South Carolina to Maryland. This is the most heat-tolerant of the Chelone species.
- Chelone cuthbertii is a rare species found in the Blue Ridge area of North Carolina as well as the Southern Blue Ridge plateau of Carroll and Grayson counties and the coastal plain of Virginia. It has purple flowers that feature yellow beards. While the other three species mentioned above are generally available commercially, C. cuthbertii is not likely to be grown for commercial distribution.
Several Chelone cultivars are also available commercially:
‘Hot Lips’ is a 2’ to 4’ tall cultivar of C. lyonii. This popular cultivar has shiny dark-green foliage, red stems, and rose-pink flowers that bloom on dense terminal spikes. Pinch it back in May to produce a bushier plant.
- ‘Black Ace’ is a 3’ to 4’ tall, white-flowering cultivar of C. glabra. In spring, the foliage is nearly black with green undertones. With the arrival of summer heat, the leaves lighten somewhat to an attractive dark green.
- ‘Alba’ is a cultivar of C. obliqua. It has white flowers rather than the pink flowers typical of the species and therefore looks very similar to C. glabra. It is 2’ to 3’ tall with a spread of 1.5’ to 2.5’.
- ‘Tiny Tortuga’ is a dwarf cultivar that grows 16” tall and 12” wide and has very attractive glossy, dark green leaves and deep pink blooms. Although the plant is a dwarf, the flowers are normal size.
- ‘Pink Temptation’ is another pink-blooming dwarf cultivar. It tops out at around 15” to 18” and may spread from 1’ to 2’. Sources vary on whether this is a cultivar of C. lyonii or C. obliqua.
Chelone is fairly easy to find in the plant nursery trade. Most well-stocked commercial nurseries carry at least one or two species. ‘Hot Lips’ and ‘Tiny Tortuga’ are two of the more popular cultivars and are also relatively easy to locate.
Chelone likes moist, neutral to slightly acid soil with a pH of 5.0 to 6.8. The soil should be amended with plenty of leaf mold and compost to help it retain moisture. Moisture is key to growing Chelone successfully. For drier sites, a thick layer of chopped leaves around the base of the plant will help hold moisture in the soil.
Ideally, this plant thrives best in a partially sunny site with evenly moist soil. It will, however, adapt to full sun and drier soil, particularly if the site is moist in the spring time. If grown in full shade, cut the plant back by about half in mid-spring to create a bushier, more compact plant. Otherwise, the stems may become leggy and flop over.
Give this plant some space to spread out. This low-care, native perennial wildflower naturalizes very easily. It grows slowly by rhizomes, eventually forming clumps or colonies up to 3’ wide depending on the species or cultivar. Once the clump reaches that size, it generally stops spreading. Fortunately, it does not spread aggressively and is not invasive.
Leave the spent foliage in place over winter and remove it in early spring. The standing foliage helps protect the plant’s crown from winter weather-related damage.
Chelone is a relatively problem-free perennial although slugs and snails may occasionally dine on the foliage. Otherwise, this plant has no serious pest problems. It is also a reasonably disease-free plant. However, it can develop powdery mildew in late summer if the soil dries out. Keeping the soil evenly moist helps to avoid the problem. Also, plenty of space should be allowed between plants to facilitate good air circulation.
As for deer and rabbits, most sources agree that these habitually destructive animals find Chelone distasteful and leave it alone. Other sources warn that Chelone is not immune from animal browsing. In my experience with this plant, it all depends on the specific animal population and the availability of other, more suitable food.
Chelone is easy to propagate by seeds, stem cuttings or division:
- Seeds – Harvest brown (ripe) seed pods and chill them at about 40°F for 6 weeks. The seeds require light for germination. Be patient, as germination may take several months. If sown in early spring, the plants should bloom their second year.
- Stem Cuttings – In late spring or early summer, root 4”to 6” long (one to two nodes) soft-wood stem cuttings in a moist medium at approximately 70°F.
- Division – Divide in early spring and plant divisions about 12” to 18” apart.
Propagate Chelone cultivars by either stem cuttings or root division in order to retain the specific characteristics of the cultivar. Propagation by seeds will not result in a clone of the mother plant.
USES IN THE LANDSCAPE
Chelone adds color to the ornamental garden late in the summer when many other perennials have finished blooming. It is an ideal companion for other moist soil loving plants such as leopard plant (Ligularia), rose mallow (Hibiscus), Astilbe, blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), flag iris, and various sedges (Carex species). Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium), monkshood (Aconitum), and ferns, such as lady fern (Athyrium) and regal fern (Osmunda regalis), are other interesting companions.
This plant looks best when planted in multiples rather than used as a single specimen. Also, it is best used in the landscape as a component of:
- Damp shade or woodland gardens
- Wildflower or native plant gardens
- Container gardens
- Rain gardens
- Bog gardens or other areas with poor drainage as well as along the periphery of ponds or streams
- The mixed border for fall color and interest. At 2’ to 3’ or more in height, it works best in the middle or toward the rear of the border.
While Chelone is a popular plant choice for any of the landscape scenarios mentioned, it also looks interesting in cut flower arrangements. The flower stalks should be cut when the buds on the top third portion of the flower spike are still closed. Once cut, the stalks take up a lot of water. However, the flowers will last about a week in the vase.
Armitage’s Native Plants for North American Gardens (Armitage, Allan M., 2006)
Flora of Virginia (Weakley, Alas S.; Ludwig, J. Christopher; and Townsend, John F., 2012)
Herbaceous Perennial Plants, A Treatise on their Identification, Culture, and Garden Attributes, Third Edition (Armitage, Allan M., 2008)
Native Plants of the Southeast (Mellichamp, Larry, 2014)
Perennials for Every Purpose (Hodgson, Larry, 2003)
Plant Propagation, (The American Horticultural Society, 1999)
“Chelone – Tough as a Tortoise,” rutgersgardens.rutgers.edu
“For the Birds, Butterflies and Hummingbirds: Creating Inviting Habitats, Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Publication HORT-59NP, www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/HORT-59-PDF
“Rare, Threatened and Endangered Animal Fact Sheet,” Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly
“Pollinator-Friendly Plants for the Northeast United States,” www.nrcs.usda.gov
“Rain Garden Plants,” VCE Publication 426-043, www.pubs.ext.vt.edu
“Wild Flowers of the United States,” uswildflowers.com