White Turtlehead is a beautiful standout in the late summer garden Photo: Robb Telfer, August 2019, East Wheaton
Chelone glabra Turtlehead
White Turtlehead is so named because the closed flowerheads are felt to resemble the shape of a turtle. Blooming for about a month from late summer into fall, this Illinois wildflower adds a unique presence to gardens with good, consistently moist organic soils.
Typically found in the wetter soils of open floodplain woods, wet prairies, sedge meadows and fens, among other habitats, White Turtlehead makes a perfect addition to rain gardens or other landscape areas that are more consistently wet. It has been blooming in my own rain garden for several years now and would be perfect for some of the low-lying creek-side areas in other yards I’ve recently visited. It will tolerate temporary flooding and is a good partner plant to other wildflowers such as Joe-Pye-Weed, Great Blue Lobelia, Swamp Milkweed and Riddell’s Goldenrod. It will also be successful in other gardens with good soils as long as it is watered regularly during dry periods. Turtlehead is not a bushy plant but rather typically consists of a single stem. Its root system is rhizomatous so in good conditions, it may form a small colony. It grows to 2-3 feet tall.
Chelone glabra attracts Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (I have watched them on mine!) and is pollinated by bumblebees able to push their way into the flower. Two other reasons to include this wildflower are that it is the host plant for the Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillar and – due to the bitter taste of its leaves - unattractive to deer and other mammals.
There is a pink turtlehead, Cheloni obliqua, that is rarely found in high quality habitats in southern and western Illinois. The pink-flowering species commonly sold in garden centers, Chelone lyonii, is usually a cultivar of a southeastern US native found in the Appalachian mountains. It will likely not add the same pollinator benefit to an Illinois garden.