Tips for Growing Pink Turtlehead
A Beautiful, 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; deep green, pointy leaves; and fat pink flowers so much that I've tried to create the right 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.
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.
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.
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 emerging in spring along with other herbaceous perennials.
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.
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!
Why would you grow pink turtlehead?
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
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?
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.Helpful 3
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?
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