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Tips and Tricks for Growing Pink Turtlehead

Jill is a former Master Gardener and Naturalist who enjoys cooking, abstract painting and stewardship.

We grow Chelone l, "Hot Lips," a runner-up in the 2012 Perennial Plant of the Year competition sponsored by the Perennial Plant Association.

We grow Chelone l, "Hot Lips," a runner-up in the 2012 Perennial Plant of the Year competition sponsored by the Perennial Plant Association.

A Beautiful and Vibrant Bloom

If you're like me, you like to have flowers blooming in your yard year-round. Not only do they add color and visual interest to the landscape, but they also provide food for pollinators.

Although pink turtlehead, sometimes called shellflower, isn't really suited to our dry, full-sun yard, I love its upright, bushy habit, its deep green, pointy leaves, and its fat pink flowers so much that I've tried to create the perfect growing conditions for it. Though pink turtlehead will never naturalize in our yard, it's growing well and continuing to spread (just a little) year after year.

Pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) is a hardy perennial in USDA zones 3–8 that blooms in late summer and fall. Gorgeous in butterfly gardens, rain gardens, and alongside ponds and other water features, it will naturalize if the conditions are right.

Other Varieties: Red, White, and Pink Turtleheads

Other species of the genus Chelone include C. glabra (white turtlehead) and C. oblique (red turtlehead). C. glabra is the hardiest of the bunch, with white flowers that are sometimes tinged with color and a strong, sweet fragrance.

C. lyonii (pink turtlehead) is very comparable to C. oblique. C. lyonii, or "Hot Lips," is one of the more popular pink cultivars. As you can see from the above photos, its large, showy flowers are a vibrant pink.

In summer, pink turtlehead develops flower heads that bloom mid-summer into early fall.

In summer, pink turtlehead develops flower heads that bloom mid-summer into early fall.

How to Plant Pink Turtlehead

Turtlehead grows from rhizomes, bulb-like stems that spread horizontally underground. As the bulbous roots grow, they develop new plantlets. Turtlehead also grows from seed, and it will self-seed, too.

In spring, I planted a small $3.95 starter pot of turtlehead, setting the root ball in a hole deep enough so that the top of it was at ground level. I then filled the hole with rain barrel water (not cold water) and filled it in with a mix of soil from the flowerbed and compost, before adding a 2-inch layer of mulch. During June and July, it almost doubled in size and eventually bloomed in late August.

Location Matters

I first located our turtlehead in a full-sun, rich-soil area and watered it frequently during the summer drought. Because I prefer more independent plants, I moved it the next spring to a partial shade location by a rain barrel. The area is not only blessed with rich soil, but it is probably the most consistently moist spot in our yard, enjoying rain barrel overflow and overshadowed by an azalea in spring and a crape myrtle in summer.

Thanks to its new location, our turtlehead has quadrupled in size and is now setting its blooms. Unfortunately, moving it to a more moist spot allowed me to ignore it during the hot, dry days of summer and set the stage for mildew, a problem that can plague pink turtlehead if it isn't cared for properly.

Our turtlehead quadrupled in size when we moved it to a new, more moist location.

Our turtlehead quadrupled in size when we moved it to a new, more moist location.

How to Care for Pink Turtlehead

Here are some tips that will help you boost your pink turtleheads' chances of thriving:


Pink turtlehead is a hardy perennial that dies down in areas that experience frost in late fall/early winter and emerges in spring along with other herbaceous perennials.

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Chelone lyonii prefers full sun, about 6–8 hours of direct light per day. It will also grow well in partial sun, about 4–6 hours per day.

A single plant will spread into clumps nearly 3 feet wide that grow anywhere from 1 to 3 feet tall. If grown in areas that are too shady, it sometimes becomes "leggy" and requires staking to maintain its upright habit.

Soil and Water

Consistently moist soil is a must for pink turtlehead. And it prefers soil that's rich and loamy with neutral pH (6.5-7).

Boggy areas in and around water are ideal for pink turtlehead. If the soil is just right, it will easily naturalize in boggy, full-sun locations, spreading slowly by setting new plantlets from its rhizomes, as well as self-seeding.

Pink turtlehead that grows in soil that dries out between waterings is prone to mildew.

Pink turtlehead that grows in soil that dries out between waterings is prone to mildew.

How to Prevent Mildew

Consistently moist soil and full or partial direct sunlight is key to keeping pink turtlehead mildew free. I failed to do that, allowing the soil to dry out over a summer that has been very hot.

To keep the mildew from spreading, I have removed the infected leaves, washed the plant down with lukewarm, soapy water, and scraped up the surrounding mulch to remove any spores that might survive our mild winter.

I've also vowed to do better—to water our pink turtlehead during the dry times and keep the nearby azalea pruned back to allow better air circulation. After all, I wanted turtlehead in our garden, even though we don't have a naturally good location for it. I should take care of it better.

I also plan to split our turtlehead next spring, transplanting part of it to its original full-sun location and comparing how the two patches grow.

Wish me luck!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: I live in NH near the seacoast and the tag said shade to part sun. So being in the northeast our sun is really hot from 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM. Does it matter if is gets morning sun or afternoon sun?

Answer: We live in the northeast as well and grow turtlehead in part sun, meaning three to six hours of sun each day. Ours gets about three hours and grows successfully. Moisture is key to this.

Question: Nice to find an article with details about turtle head. I’d never seen it until I moved to a house with a big patch in the front yard. When it bloomed, it was swarming with bees of all types, including some tiny bees, into mid-autumn. My question: should I cut down last year’s stalks?

Answer: I don't cut our patch of turtlehead down, but it's in an out-of-the-way location and virtually disappears when the heavy frosts hit. I checked it today, and only a few thin stalks are sticking up. If yours is noticeable, you might want to snip off the stalks in the fall. I've never had any issues, however, from not doing so.

© 2013 Jill Spencer


ValKaras on November 06, 2016:

I am not into gardening, but I am fascinated by the beauty of flowers, which are, in my opinion the most beautiful creations in nature. You must enjoy it a lot, growing and nurturing them. I admire your choice of life style, indeed.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 29, 2013:

Hi Thelma! Our pink turtlehead just started blooming a few days ago. The pink against the dark green leaves is so beautiful! Hope you can find turtlehead where you are and give it a try. Thanks for your comments! Take care, Jill (:

Thelma Alberts from Germany on August 29, 2013:

Gorgeous! I have not heard about this beautiful flower. Thanks for the very informative information. I´ll be looking around for this flower.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 27, 2013:

Hi lastheart! Appreciate your sharing the article--and thanks for commenting, too. All the best, Jill

Maria Magdalena Ruiz O'Farrill from Borikén the great land of the valiant and noble Lord on August 27, 2013:

Lovely!! Great instructions. A must bookmark and sharing.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 27, 2013:

Thanks, Glimmer Twin Fan. I'm so happy that the deer haven't discovered our pink turtlehead. I hope it stays that way! Thanks for commenting & sharing. --Jill

Claudia Porter on August 27, 2013:

OK, Another great one. I love the turtlehead, unfortunately so do the deer, a lot. I have to spray it all the time, but it is worth it for the late summer color in my shady garden. There are not too many plants that do that for me. Shared around.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 22, 2013:

Hey MsDora! I'd love to have you over, too. We could have a cup of tea & swap plants! Thanks for your kind comments. --Jill

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 22, 2013:

Dirt Farmer, I wish I could visit your yard once every season. Your pictures are always so lovely. Thank you for sharing your expert knowledge.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 21, 2013:

Thanks so much, Eddy! All the best, Jill

Eiddwen from Wales on August 21, 2013:

Another great article Jill.

Voted up.


Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 20, 2013:

Hi Eddy! Hope your day's going well, too. I'm liking the fall-like weather here--chilly mornings and sunny afternoons! Take care, & thanks for stopping by! --Jill

Eiddwen from Wales on August 20, 2013:

Another wonderful hub; so colourful. interesting and useful.

Here's wishing you a great day Jill.

Enjoy your day.


Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 20, 2013:

Thanks a lot, Deb! It's fun to share what I learn as I go. Hope you're doing well. (: --Jill

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on August 20, 2013:

A great flower. You are just a wealth of information and I hope you eventually come out with a book regarding the beautiful flora that we can have.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 17, 2013:

Hi younghopes! I had never seen pink turtlehead before either until I ran across it at an Amish nursery & was attracted by its foliage (and the picture of the flower on the identification tag). Thanks for sharing this hub! Take care, Jill

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 17, 2013:

Oh no, Pearl, now you have me worried about the deer noticing our turtlehead! I'm going to have to spray them down real good with stinky stuff. Thanks for commenting. It's good to find another turtlehead lover out there! --Jill

Connie Smith from Southern Tier New York State on August 17, 2013:

Jill, I am delighted to read this article on one of my absolute favorite perennials! I wait patiently throughout the summer for it to flower, and guard it against the browsing of the deer. But I am eventually rewarded with the most fascinating deep pink blooms, that do resemble turtles sticking their heads out from their shells.

I, too, have 'hot lips' growing in a part-shade rain garden. It is beloved by my butterflies, hummers and bumbles.

Thanks for sharing this awesome and interesting flower ;)Pearl

Voted Up++++ and pinned

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 17, 2013:

LOL That's only fair, Suzie: you're my hair & skin care guru!

Shadaan Alam from India on August 17, 2013:

What a beautiful flower, i have never seen it nor heard the name even, i think it is not there in my country. Sharing this one hub, let others be aware of this flower

Suzanne Ridgeway from Dublin, Ireland on August 17, 2013:

Thanks Jill for checking that out for me! And wouldn't you know Dublin is coastal however my partner's place where I have moved to is more inland so I will check out nurseries here I know. he has wild land so I would container plant for now, hence the pot question. Appreciate your help!! You are my plant guru!!

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on August 17, 2013:

Hi Suzy! Thanks so much for your comments. I checked out a world plant map, and it looks like turtlehead will grow in most parts of Ireland, excepting the areas right on the coast. Like you, I don't think it would do well long-term in pot, but it might like a large terrarium where it could spread a bit. You never know until you experiment! All the best & thanks for the shares and votes, Jill

Suzanne Ridgeway from Dublin, Ireland on August 17, 2013:

Hi Jill,

What a gorgeous flower I am not familiar with. When I saw your hub hit my stream I just had to check it out, Pink Turtlehead! I wonder do they grow successfully here in Ireland with our climate, I must check it out as I would love to have it grow in Autumn for color and for butterflies!

Would this plant grow in containers or is it just for the ground? it seems a ground one with it's spread.

Thanks Jill for a great insight into this gorgeous and vibrant flower!

U,U,I shared and pinned to flowers!

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