Turtlehead Plants (Chelone glabra) Quick Facts:
Turtlehead is host plant to Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly, nectar plant to many pollinators
Native to the eastern half of the US and Canada
Hardy in USDA zones 3-8
Medium to moist soil
White flowers bloom in fall
2-3 feet tall, 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 feet spread
Space 18-24 inches apart
Propagated from seed or by rhizomes cuttings
Turtlehead for Baltimore Checkerspot Butterflies!
White Turtlehead (Chelone Glabra) is also known as Shellflower, Snake Head, Snake Mouth, Cod Head, Fish Mouth, Balmony or Bitter Herb. It is the primary host plant for Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies. Hummingbirds and bees use Chelone glabra as a food plant as well.
Turtlehead Plant Characteristics
Chelone glabra is a US native, slow growing, herbaceous perennial. It can be found in wet meadows and forests from Georgia to Newfoundland and Labrador and from Mississippi to Manitoba.
It grows wild in swamps and shores from Virginia to North Carolina and Georgia, but is hardy to colder (zone 4) regions such as New England and southern Canada.
Turtlehead will grow to 2-3 ft. tall and spread 1.5-2.5ft. It’s white, with pink tinge flowers, resemble turtle heads and are present from Aug. till Oct. They are extremely charming, but the Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies and especially their chrysalises are beautiful and intriguing.
Turtlehead and Baltimore Checkerspot Butterflies
The female Checkerspots lay eggs in a cluster on the underside of Chelone glabra leaves during summer. This is the primary plant that they use for egg-laying. In certain areas in the northwest they have adapted to using plantain (Plantago lanceolopata) as well but in much of their range Turtlehead is still the only plant on which the female butterflies will lay.
The orange caterpillars with black stripes eat from a silky nest during the summer. In the fall they hibernate in curled-up leaves on the ground. In the spring they will leave their winter nest and find another plant to feed from. They are sometimes referred to as the “goat” of the butterfly world because of their wide range of secondary plant food. Along with re-using their primary source (White Chelone) for their secondary source, they can also use viburnum, honeysuckle, false foxglove, plaintain, other turtlehead species, etc as a secondary source.
|Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly Chrysalis.
Source: Tom Potterfield reproduced under Creative Commons
The chrysalis is strikingly ornate with dotted lines and raised bumps colored black or orange/yellow on a white background.
Chelone Glabra Growth Conditions
Turtlehead thrives in part shade, in USDA zone 3-8. It prefers moisture from medium to wet and a good composted leaf mulch, particularly in sunny areas.
This plant likes wet, rich, humusy soil such as found in swampy areas and along streams. It adapts to clay, sand, or woodland soil as long as there is adequate moisture.
This is a slow growing, clump forming, leafy stemmed plant and might not flower from seed until the second year of growth. For most of the growing season, Chelone glabra plants are unremarkable, but they really come into their own late in the season, providing fall color in the perennial border or native garden.
Propagating Turtlehead Plants, Seed or Cuttings
Seeds may be planted outside during fall. The seeds will take several months to germinate (even up to one year). Otherwise, the seeds require 120 day cold stratification. See our seed page for more information on seeds.
Turtleheads will spread slowly by rhizomes. The roots of the plant can be divided in early spring or late autumn when it is in its dormancy state. They should be placed 18 inches apart.
It is possible to propagate it from stem cuttings as well.
Why Buy Turtlehead Plants
Besides its important role as primary host plant for Baltimore Checkerspot Butterflies, Chelone glabra is a low maintenance perennial that provides lovely cut flowers (with a vase life of about a week). It can be used as a part of shade or woodland gardens, bog gardens, pond or water garden peripheries, wildflower or native plant gardens. It is also a good candidate for container growing.
Don’t miss out on witnessing the amazing chrysalises of the Checkerspots!