Consider Native Turtlehead

July 2, 2017 lawanda Newspaper Columns

The colors of the late summer garden are mostly brilliant purples, reds, oranges and yellows.  Turtlehead is an easy-to-grow perennial plant native to our area whose late summer flowers provide a serene contrast to all that intensity with creamy white blooms.

The Latin name for turtlehead is Chelone glabra.  “Chelone” is the Greek word for tortoise and it is so named because the 1-1 ½ inch flowers are shaped like the heads of turtles just poking out of their shells.  The second word, “glabra,” means smooth, and refers to the lack of hairs on the leaves and stems.

Turtlehead grows 1-3’ tall and 1 ½’-2 ½’ wide.  Flowers are held in spikes on erect stems and bloom from July through September.   Strappy dark green leaves are 3-6” long and edged with coarse teeth.  The profile of the plant is roughly vase-shaped.

In their native habitat, turtleheads are found in wet, sunny areas, along streams and wetlands and in open woods.  They are easily adaptable to the garden in rich, evenly moist soil in full sun or part shade.  Mulching the plants will help to conserve moisture.  As native plants, they are adapted to our climate and can tolerate short dry spells.  They need no additional fertilizer.

Turtlehead can be divided in spring or in late fall after flowering.  Dig the fleshy-rooted crowns and chop down the middle with a sharp spade before replanting.  Plants spread slowly on their own but do not become invasive.

After blooming, attractive seed heads remain on the plants.  You can propagate the plants by seed by sowing them outdoors as soon as they are ripe.  Otherwise, harvest seed and sow them indoors.  After sowing, place them in a refrigerator for six weeks before bringing them out to a bright location with an approximate temperature of 60°.  They will germinate in two to three weeks.  Even though turtlehead will survive our Wisconsin winters just fine, wait to transplant your new seedlings outdoors until after danger of spring frost is past.

Turtlehead suffers from no serious disease or insect problems but may be susceptible to mildew if the soil is too dry or air circulation around the plant is not good.

Being a native plant, turtlehead supports much wildlife, including the larvae of several butterflies, most notably the rare Baltimore Checkerspot.  The nectar is a favorite of several butterflies, bees and hummingbirds.

There are a few cultivars of turtlehead, with rose pink or red-violet flowers.  While these plants may make a beautiful addition to your garden, be aware that the cultivars are not native plants and will not support the wildlife that the native turtlehead does.

Good landscape companion plants for turtlehead include asters, prairie phlox, Joe-pye weed, goldenrod, grasses, cardinal flower, ferns, obedient plant and great blue lobelia.  Turtlehead will be as at home in a formal landscape as it is in a more natural landscape, bog garden or rain garden.  They are particularly pretty at a pond’s edge.

 

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