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How to Grow Turtlehead (Chelone), a Native Plant

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.


One of my favorite native plants is the turtlehead. It got its name because the flowers look like a turtle with its mouth open. Even though they look like snapdragons or foxgloves, they are not related to either one.

What is Turtlehead?

Turtlehead (Chelone spp.) is a flowering perennial plant that is native to Northeastern North America. It is usually found in forested areas along streams or in swamps or bogs. They are hardy in zones 3 – 9 with a range that extends from Minnesota to Florida.

There are five species of chelone, ranging in height from 1 – 5 feet tall. The cultivars commonly grown in our gardens usually grow only 2 – 3 feet. The leaves grow alternately along the stems. They are dark green, shiny and heavily toothed.

The uniquely shaped flowers can be white, pink, red or purple depending on the species. Bloom time is late fall. They are followed by seed pods that start out green, turning brown as they mature. The seeds are tiny, only about 1/8 inch. Not all turtlehead species will self-sow in your garden.

The leaves are dark green and heavily toothed.

The leaves are dark green and heavily toothed.

How to Grow Turtlehead

Turtleheads grow best in partial shade but will tolerate full sun in the northern areas of its range. They also need moist soil. The best soil for them is rich and consistently moist. These plants are great in that wet, shady spot in your yard or along the shady side of your backyard pond.

Most gardeners purchase turtleheads as second year plants. They should be planted 1 ½ to 2 feet apart in your garden. Water them well to get them settled in their new location. If they are not planted in an area with wet soil, be sure to water them regularly the first year. After that, they can tolerate dry soil.

Starting the second year, you can fertilize your chelone in the spring using a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10.

Turtlehead can grow to be quite tall but the stems are strong and staking is not usually needed. In shadier spots where the plants can be a bit tall and spindly, you can pinch off the stems in the spring to produce a bushier, sturdier plant.

Pinching refers to the practice of pruning or cutting an actively growing stem using your fingers or pruners. What this does is cut off the growing tip. When you cut off the growing tip, the plant is stimulated to replace it. The missing growing tip is often replaced by two or more new growing tips which produce two or more new stems or branches. The end result is a plant that is not as tall, but has multiple stems and branches making it less likely to topple over. It also makes the plant appear fuller and produce more flowers.

A turtlehead species with white flowers.

A turtlehead species with white flowers.

How to Divide Turtlehead

Individual turtlehead plants grow into clumps which can be divided. Division should be done in the spring when the shoots are at least 1 inch tall. Using a shovel, dig around the perimeter of the clump, gently loosening the soil. Once you have loosened the soil all the way around the clump, use your shovel to gently lever it out of the soil.

Once the clump is out of the soil, brush away the soil as best that you can. Use a sharp knife to divide the clump making sure that each division has at least three healthy shoots.

Turtlehead likes to be wet, so it’s a good idea to prepare the garden space where you want to plant your divisions before you dig up the clump. Place the divisions in a bucket of water to keep them wet while you plant.

Space your divisions 1 ½ - 2 feet apart. Water well. Make sure that the soil stays moist throughout the growing season. If necessary, add supplemental water if there is a dry spell. By the second year, your divisions will be settled into their new homes and better able to tolerate dryer soil. Starting the second year, you can fertilize them with a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10.

How to Grow Turtlehead From Seed

Growing turtlehead from seed requires some patience and fresh seed. Collect the brown pods from your plants in the fall before they open and release their seeds. Finish drying them in a paper bag with slits cut in it to allow for air circulation.

Surface sow the seeds in a container filled with pre-moistened soil. I always water my soil before planting because I have found that if I water after I plant my seeds, both the soil and the seeds may wash away. Don’t cover the seeds. They need light to germinate.

Place a plastic bag over the container and put it in your refrigerator for 3 months. This mimics the winter weather that your plants would experience outside. The plastic bag helps to keep the soil moist. Check your container occasionally and water if the soil feels dry.

After three months, remove the container from your refrigerator and take it out of the plastic bag. Place the container in a window with indirect light or that faces north. The seeds will take several months to germinate.

You can transplant your seedlings outdoors in the spring after the last frost. Space them 1 ½ - 2 feet apart.

© 2020 Caren White


Caren White (author) on November 15, 2020:

That's a good alternative - setting the seeds in containers outdoors during the winter. They just need that spell of cold weather, whether it is outdoors or in your fridge.

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on November 14, 2020:

That was a very interesting article. I love my flowers and will probably have a flowerbed no matter where my head lies.

I had never heard of putting seeds in refrigerator already prepared in the soil with a bag over them for 3 months.

I guess this would work but I think I might just set outside in the cool air as my refrigerator is a little bit small.

Thanks for the share.

Caren White (author) on November 14, 2020:

I just love the flowers. they are so unusual.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on November 13, 2020:

Thanks for educating us about growing turtlehead plants. I was not familiar with them.