How to Plant and Grow Turtlehead

With a little imagination, the uniquely shaped flowers look like a turtle about to snap.

Turtlehead (Chelone spp.) is a native wildflower that grows exceptionally well in moist, shady soils and puts on an impressive display of blooms in late summer to fall. Even when not in bloom, these plants have striking leathery, green foliage that can quickly fill in a shady spot and add a complementary backdrop to neighboring plants. Turtlehead is right at home in a woodland setting and spreads slowly but surely to create dense clumps of plants. It also makes pretty cut flowers.

Turtlehead plants are found in beautiful shades of pink and white. When looking closely at these interesting blooms, you will see that the common name for this plant makes sense, as the flowers look like snapping turtle heads. These curious blooms are found at the tips of each of the stems. Mature stands of these plants can make for a stunning display of blooms.

Turtlehead Overview

Genus Name Chelone
Common Name Turtlehead
Plant Type Perennial
Light Part Sun, Shade
Height 1 to 4 feet
Width 1 to 2 feet
Flower Color Pink, White
Foliage Color Blue/Green
Season Features Fall Bloom, Summer Bloom
Special Features Attracts Birds, Cut Flowers, Low Maintenance
Zones 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Propagation Division, Seed
Problem Solvers Drought Tolerant

Where to Plant Turtlehead

Turtlehead plants tolerate a variety of sun conditions, but plant them in part shade to ensure the plants look their absolute best while requiring the least amount of additional input to keep them happy. They can handle sun but require additional watering.

When planting turtlehead, consider its native woodland habitat. They often grow alongside streams and lakes. They need consistently moist soil and prefer boggy sites over dry soils.

How and When to Plant Turtlehead

Plant turtlehead nursery plants in spring or summer. Dig a hole in rich, loamy, moist soil that is slightly larger than the root ball. Slip the plant out of its container and into the hole so it sits at the same height as in the container, filling in with soil if needed. Then backfill the hole and press down slightly with your hands to remove any air pockets.

In spring, sow seeds on the surface of a prepared garden bed. They require light to germinate. Some of them require a period of cold stratification; check the seed packet for a stratification requirement. Seed harvested from cultivars of turtlehead won't grow true to the parent plant.

Turtlehead Care Tips


Plant turtlehead in part shade. While they can handle full sun, they will likely need supplemental watering, as they tend to dry out faster in full sun than when planted in part sun. If all other conditions are ideal, turtlehead plants can grow well in full shade. However, they may experience a lankier habit, and shade increases the chances of developing powdery mildew.

Soil and Water

Turtlehead plants thrive in moist to wet soil. They don't like dry soil. In a dry setting, these plants require daily supplemental watering to keep them looking their best. Also, make sure they receive adequate water to keep up their lush growth when growing under mature trees.

Temperature and Humidity

Turtlehead plants grow well in mild, moist climates and don't grow well in hot, dry locales.


Fertilizer isn't needed during the first year. After that, apply a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer in early spring, following product label instructions.


In autumn, remove the dried seed heads and spent flowers. Trim any overgrown branches by up to one-third of their height. Remove any crossing branches or ones that rub together by cutting them off at the ground.

Potting and Repotting Turtlehead

Turtlehead can be planted in containers that offer good drainage. Fill the container with potting soil or garden soil mixed with compost and position it in part shade. The planting medium should never be allowed to dry out; turtlehead prefers a damp environment. This plant is a slow grower, so repotting is seldom necessary.

Pests and Problems

To prevent powdery mildew and other potential foliar diseases, make sure the plants have adequate air circulation. The occasional thinning out of larger, mature stands can be helpful because it increases the airflow to the center of the plants.

How to Propagate Turtlehead

Division: Turtlehead can be divided to acquire new plants. The best time to divide turtlehead is in the spring, just as the new growth emerges, preferably on a cool, cloudy day. Dig up the plant, separating the rootstock and foliage into two or three sections and replanting them immediately, or place them in a bucket of water to prevent the roots from drying out and replant as soon as possible.

Seed: Turtlehead produces oval seed pods that turn brown and split open when the seeds are mature. Remove the pods from the plant before they split and spread them out in a warm, dry area. When they are completely dry, remove the seeds from the pod and store them in a cool place until planting time.

Some species, such as white turtlehead (Chelone glabra), require cold stratification, so you need to know the species of the parent plant. If the seeds of your plant require a cold period before germination, put them in a sealed plastic bag with moist peat and refrigerate them for six weeks. Sow the seed indoors in small pots filled with a seed-starting mix and don't cover them—they need light to germinate. Place the pots in an area of bright light (not full sun) and keep the planting medium moist. It may take months for the seeds to germinate.

Types of Turtlehead

Pink Turtlehead

turtlehead chelone native wildflower
Dean Schoeppner

Chelone lyonii is one of the tallest of turtlehead species at 3-4 feet in height. It bears clusters of purplish-pink flowers from August through October. Zones 3-8

Rose Turtlehead

Rose turtlehead
Greg Ryan

Chelone obliqua flowers look similar to those of pink turtlehead, but they tend to be slightly darker and are borne on plants that remain under 2 feet in height. Zones 5-9

White Turtlehead

White turtlehead (Chelone glabra) displays white to light pink flowers above dark green foliage. In addition to garden beds, white turtlehead can be planted in a water garden or a moist perennial border. It grows to 4 feet tall. Zones 3-8

Turtlehead Companion Plants

Toad Lily

toad lily
Greg Ryan

No fall garden should be without toad lilies. These Asian curiosities bloom with orchid-like flowers that demand a close look when the garden is winding down in fall. They do best in light shade in humus-rich soil that retains moisture and are suitable for borders or less formal parts of the garden and among shrubs, gradually becoming large clumps. Some self-seed but not aggressively.

Marsh Marigold

marsh marigold
John Noltner

This flower likes wet conditions so much that it's often recommended for bog and water gardens, where it lights things up with bright yellow flowers. A native of wetlands, marsh marigold forms foot-tall mounds of foliage topped with 1- to 2-inch-wide yellow blooms (a white form is also available) in early spring. It's also a good selection for chronically soggy or poorly drained sites. It often goes dormant after it blooms.


Iris Immortality
Dean Schoeppner

Named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow, the iris comes in a rainbow of colors and many heights. All have the classic, impossibly intricate flowers. The flowers are constructed with three upright "standard" petals and three drooping "fall" petals, which are often different colors. The falls may be "bearded" or not. Some cultivars bloom a second time in late summer. Some species prefer alkaline soil, while others prefer acidic soil.

Garden Plans for Turtlehead

Downspout Garden

downspout rain garden plan
Illustration by Mavis Augustine Torke

Downspouts have a knack for drenching their surroundings whenever it rains. This can make the soil too soggy for many types of plants, but you can still enjoy plenty of colorful perennials that will thrive in the extra moisture. This garden plan is up to the high-moisture challenge of the area around a downspout.

Easy Streetside Garden Plan

Easy Streetside Garden Plan illustration
Illustration by Mavis Augustine Torke

Turn a streetside strip into a heavenly oasis of color and bloom with fuss-free native plants.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do turtlehead plants attract any pollinators?

    Turtlehead plants attract honeybees, bumblebees, and hummingbirds and are important host plants for Baltimore checkerspot butterflies.

  • How long is the turtlehead bloom season?

    They begin to bloom in late summer and continue until autumn for up to six weeks.

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