White Turtlehead Spreads Slowly But Steadily
Updated: Sep 23
My Georgia native plant pick #8 for September is called white turtlehead (chelone glabra) although I haven’t ever seen white flowers because I have a distinctly pink-tinged form. It blooms from late August through October in my intown Atlanta yard.
Chelone is the name of a nymph in Greek mythology who was turned into a turtle for insulting the gods. Once you see the flower, it is easy to see where turtlehead gets its name! Turtlehead has been historically used medicinally in a variety of ways, including expelling worms!
When I add new native plants to my rewilded semi-urban yard, I try to buy three so I can see how they grow in slightly different areas. It helps me learn how adaptable a plant is and where it grows best so I can share this with others who live intown Atlanta and want to add native plants to their own yard. The turtlehead I planted in a damp, shady area disappeared. The one in a dry, semi-sunny area comes back every year, but is still a small, lonely plant that looks much that same as when I planted it. The turtlehead in the partially, sunny damp part of my yard I call the magic area where I’ve created a mini-meadow of sorts has spread and turned into a solid turtlehead patch. It definitely needs moisture and some sun and would be a great choice for any damp spot, a rain garden, swampy area, or along a creek.
It seems like this would also be a great plant to add to a bottomland deciduous forest restoration project, but I’ve read conflicting information because it is considered deer resistant, but it there is evidence is it also eaten by deer. It is not toxic, but one of the multiple common names for turtlehead is bitter herb, so I don’t think it would be the first choice for rabbits and deer.
The 2-3 foot strong stems of turtlehead tend to fall over as the season progresses although it might not do this as much in a sunnier spot. I’ve become a fan of the flop and enjoy the way my turtlehead mingles with the plants growing near it including broadleaf Barbara’s button (marshallia trinervia), common boneset (eupatorium perfoliatum), obedient plant (physostegia), sallow sedge (carex lurida), and sweetspire (itea).
Even though it is easy to grow, you may have to search a little to find the straight species of turtlehead at native plant nurseries and sales. One popular local native plant nursery carries turtlehead, but it is currently out of stock. If you have turtlehead, it can be divided in the late fall or early spring to share or start new patches.
The Baltimore checkerspot butterfly uses turtlehead as its host plant. This endangered butterfly is another reason to ditch the fall garden ”cleanup” and leave the leaves and plant stalks to overwinter. The checkerspot caterpillars grow and molt throughout the summer and hibernate in dead leaves and grass on the ground until the weather warms when they become active and resume feeding.
Turtlehead is another nectar source for hummingbirds just when they need to bulk up before migration. It is considered a butterfly nectar plant, but I haven't seen any visit mine. In general I do not see many butterflies in my rewilded yard because of all the scorched-earth landscaping used in the yards in my neighborhood. I see plenty of insect damage on the turtlehead leaves which in a healthy ecosystem is a good thing!
When I was trying to identify a red-headed bush cricket (aka handsome trig) I found on my turtlehead recently I learned about a cool link on the Orthopterists' Society called Singing Insects of North America where I could hear what a this particular bush cricket sounds like.
I would add turtlehead to a children's garden because there is a constant parade of bumblebees prying open the flowers and crawling inside to get the pollen.