In the last weeks of summer, it is a treat to welcome new flowers to the garden that not only bring fresh color, but also nourish our native pollinators before winter arrives. Two species of the perennial plant, Chelone (pronounced “key-LONE-ee”), start blooming in late August and continue well into fall. Both make great additions to gardens in the Eastern US, and both are known by the rather strange common name, “Turtlehead.”

Chelone glabra starts to bloom just before Labor Day

White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) has a wide native range, extending from Minnesota to Newfoundland and south to Alabama and Georgia (Zones 3 to 9). It is found in marshes, at the edge of wet woodlands, and along the shores of streams and ponds. That native habitat makes White Turtlehead an obvious choice for sunny rain gardens and soggy areas, but it will happily endure hot weather with occasional irrigation. White Turtlehead stands 3 to 4 feet tall and mixes well with Joe Pye Weed and Cardinal Flower.

White Turtlehead in a rain garden

Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) has a much more limited native range. It evolved in the Appalachian region from Georgia to Virginia, but has become naturalized in New York and parts of New England. Our observations suggest that insects in these northern areas have welcomed Pink Turtlehead, making good use of its nectar, pollen, and leaves. Pink Turtlehead is more tolerant of shade than White Turtlehead, and can be found in moist forest areas in dappled sun.

Chelone lyonii in a protected forest in New York

Pink Turtlehead also grows 3 to 4 feet tall and has an open, somewhat rangy form. There is a widely-available cultivar of Chelone lyonii called ‘Hot Lips’ that is more compact, only 1 to 2 feet tall, with dark green leaves. ‘Hot Lips’ looks great massed under trees or as a front-of-the-border plant in a light-shade garden.

Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’ in late August

Both types of Turtlehead bloom for two months or more, with flowers opening sequentially from the bottom to the top of each stalk.

‘Hot Lips’ in a shade garden in mid-September
‘Hot Lips’ in October

Both the scientific name and the common name relate to the appearance of the flowers as they open. “Chelone” comes from the Greek word for “turtle.” The name makes sense if you see the flower from the side angle – it does look a bit turtle-ish.

 White Turtlehead
Turtlehead?
Turtle head! (Actually, this is the Nature Center’s Sulcatas tortoise. And as for those turtle “hot lips”? Just recall beauty is in the eye of the beholder.)
Photo: Travis Brady

Chelones are beautiful late bloomers, but the best reason to have these plants in your garden? Entertainment! All day long, wiggling bumblebees work their way into the flowers to find nectar. Bumblebees and carpenter bees are just heavy enough and strong enough to force the flowers open, collect the pollen, and fly off to the next flower. Watch them at work in this video clip:

 Entertainment!

The nectar pay-off is deep inside the flower, so the bumblebee picks up pollen on the way in and on the way out. The pollen will be transferred to the next flower when the bee brushes against the protruding curved stigma.

What the bee sees…

Turtlehead is a frequent addition to children’s gardens because watching the bumblebees climb into these beautiful blossoms never gets old.

THIS BLOG IS AUTHORED WEEKLY BY CATHY LUDDEN, CONSERVATIONIST AND NATIVE PLANT EDUCATOR; AND BOARD MEMBER, GREENBURGH NATURE CENTER. FOLLOW CATHY ON INSTAGRAM FOR MORE PHOTOS AND GARDENING TIPS @CATHYLUDDEN.

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