Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Turtleheads - Chelone

I'm all about plants that don't get the love they deserve from gardeners.  The various turtleheads, species in the genus Chelone, definitely fall into that category.  There are 4 species in the genus, all are native to eastern North America and all are found in moist soils usually in semi-shaded areas.  All four species bloom in late summer into fall and are GREAT additions to the fall landscape.

C. cuthbertii has the smallest range, found only in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.  I haven't seen it available in the trade, except maybe from some native plant specialty nurseries, but even then only very rarely.  Flowers are bright pink to lilac.  I've never seen it in a garden so I can't comment on size or mildew resistance.  If anyone has a nice lilac form, I'd love to give this a try!

C. obliqua is much more widespread throughout the midwest to the southeast.  Flowers range from dark pink to white.  I find this species to be prone to powdery mildew, but it is an attractive addition to the garden.  It's genetically interesting in that the specie is either tetraploid or hexaploid depending on where it comes from, there is no diploid form.  (Ploidy refers to the number of chromosome sets a cell has learn more if you wish:  3' tall x 5' wide in the garden.  

C. lyonii is native to the east and southeast, from Maine to Mississippi.  It has bright pink flowers.  It is the most commonly available species, by way of the variety 'Hot Lips'.  This selection differs by having reddish stems and glossy leaves that emerge with a bronze cast in spring.  I've never had mildew problems on it and it's been a good grower.  'Hot Lips' also seems to be the most drought resistant of all of the turtleheads.  Average soil is fine, but it will definitely do best in rich moist soil.  It takes up real estate though, so give it room. 3' tall x 5'+ wide.  This is the most commonly available variety for a good reason: it's FANTASTIC!  Plant it in front of a large burgundy leaf plant (Sambucus 'Black Lace' or a red lace leaf Japanese maple are good candidates) and add Hakonechloa macra 'All Gold' and Hosta 'Elvis Lives' for an awesome combo!

Chelone lyonii 'Hot Lips'
Chelone lyonii 'Hot Lips'

Chelone lyonii 'Hot Lips'

C. glabra is the most widespread species, from eastern Manitoba south to northern Mississippi and east to the coast.  While the other three species are all fairly similar to each other, this one is the definite misfit.  This species has white flowers rather than pink, the foliage is longer and narrower than the others, it tends to be much taller and not as wide.  Probably best represented in the trade by the cultivar 'Black Ace', but even so this isn't a common species.  'Black Ace' was selected for its very dark, near black stems and foliage when it emerges in spring.  This effect is said to last until late summer, but the stems and foliage turn green very quickly for me.  The green IS darker than the species though, and I consider that an improvement!  'Black Ace' has been more clump forming for me, and while it can reportedly reach up to 6' tall, it hasn't exceeded 4' tall and 3' wide for me.  After 10 years of growing this plant I have yet to take a good picture of the whole clump.  C. glabra is also the primary food plant for caterpillars of the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, so if you're in a region that it's found (its range mirrors the range of this species) it's worth planting C. glabra as a food plant.  I find it to be an attractive addition to the perennial garden, though it probably requires more moisture than the other species.  I like to pair it with large gold hosta and ornamental grasses, and it's an excellent addition to a partially shaded rain garden!

Chelone glabra 'Black Ace'
If you haven't tried any turtleheads in the garden and have a partially shade spot, especially with rich moist soil, give one a try.  Chelone glabra 'Black Ace' or Chelone lyonii 'Hot Lips' are relatively easy to find and worthy of garden space.  


  1. Great info again today. You do well with your blog and I appreciate that. Jack

  2. Thanks Jack! I'm trying to get back to a regular blogging schedule.


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