White Turtlehead Facts, Care & Planting Guide (Chelone glabra)

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how to grow white turtlehead chelone glabra
White turtlehead has two-lipped white flowers, sometimes tinged with pink. Photo by R. A. Nonenmacher / CC BY-SA

Known commonly as white turtlehead, Chelone glabra is an herbaceous flowering perennial. Historically classified as being in the figwort (Scrophulariaceae) family, DNA research in recent years has led white turtlehead to be reassigned to Plantaginaceae, the plantain family. While this may sound odd, the plantain family does not actually include the plantain that we cook, and instead includes species such as foxgloves and snapdragons.

Plants in the Plantaginaceae family are diverse and widespread. White turtlehead is native to eastern North America, ranging from Georgia in the south to Manitoba in the north. In nature, it’s found marginally in wetlands (primarily marshes), along streams and lakes, as well as in damp lowland woods and moist meadows.

White turtlehead produces clusters of white, sometimes pink or purple-tinged, flowers, which are often compared to snapdragons. This plant’s genus name comes from the Greek word for tortoise (chelone), referencing the flowers’ similar shape to tortoise or turtle heads. Flowers appear at the end of summer, making white turtlehead a great option for extending flowering in a garden or pond.

As an indicator species that is sensitive to pollution, the presence of white turtlehead is a good sign of a healthy wetland.

Facts, Benefits & Uses of White Turtlehead

baltimore checkerspot butterfly in garden
White turtlehead is of particular importance to the Baltimore checkerspot, a small butterfly with declining numbers. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren / CC BY

In areas where their ranges overlap, white turtlehead is an important larval host plant for the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, a species that is experiencing significant declines. Baltimore checkerspot butterflies, the state insect of Maryland, lay hundreds of eggs on white turtlehead at a time. After hatching, the caterpillars use white turtlehead leaves as food and shelter from predators such as parasitic wasps. As the weather begins to cool in autumn and winter, Baltimore checkerspot caterpillars hibernate in the fallen leaves of white turtlehead plants.

White turtlehead also attracts a variety of other pollinators, including bumblebees, butterflies, and even hummingbirds. For this reason, white turtlehead can be a great addition to a pollinator garden, or for anyone who wants to encourage pollinators to visit their pond or terrestrial garden.

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White Turtlehead Fact Sheet:
Herbaceous Perennial
USDA 3 – 8
Full sun to partial shade
White, white with pink
August – October (Late summer to autumn)
Height 60-120cm (23.6-47.2in)
Place seeds on moist soil surface; bury roots up to plant crown
pH 5.0 – 6.8

White Turtlehead Growth, Hardiness & Climate

how to grow white turtlehead in ponds
Moist, rich soils suit this plant best. Photo by Superior National Forest / CC BY

White turtlehead is easily grown when provided with the proper conditions, including rich moist soil and full to partial sun. This plant tolerates flooding and is a great option for both terrestrial gardens and ponds. Like many perennials, white turtlehead grows rhizomes, and has a typical spread of two feet and full-grown height of two to four feet.

This species typically blooms from August through October, with its white to pinkish hued flowers persisting for roughly six weeks. White turtlehead survives best in hardiness zones 3-8.

How to Plant White Turtlehead in Ponds

how to plant white turtlehead chelone glabra
When grown in shadier conditions, white turtlehead tends to be leggy with fewer flowers. Photo by Charles de Mille-Isles / CC BY-SA 2.0

To grow from seeds, simply plant seeds outside in autumn or winter near the soil surface and keep moist. White turtlehead seeds are dependent on cold stratification, meaning that they rely on the ground freezing and thawing to weaken the husk of the seed to allow for sprouting.  White turtlehead typically flowers after two years.

White turtlehead can also be planted from an already established plant or seedling. If planting around the edges of a pond or stream bed, be sure to place only the roots under water. Otherwise, bury roots so that the crown of the plant lies just at or above the surface of the soil. White turtlehead will grow well in damp to wet soil, and happily grows as a marginal plant on the banks of ponds and wetlands.

How to Care for White Turtlehead

As mentioned above, white turtlehead thrives in moist to wet, organically rich soil. The soil of germinating seeds and seedlings should be kept moist, while more mature plants tolerate flooding as well as moist soil. It would be a good idea to plant white turtlehead along the edge of your pond where it can get ample water.

Overall, white turtlehead is relatively hardy as long as soil isn’t dry, and the plant has access to at least some sunlight. More shade will lead to a plant that is more stretched out and leggy with fewer flowers. If desired, you can pinch or prune back white turtlehead to encourage a sturdier, more bushy shape. If your white turtlehead is planted on the banks of a pond, be sure to clean any dropped flowers and leaves out of the water to limit decomposition and promote healthy water quality.

How to Winter White Turtlehead

White turtlehead is native to areas with cold winters, and as such is able to go dormant and survive cold seasons. In fact, a cold season is helpful for seed germination, as mentioned above! Mature plants will drop their leaves in the winter, leaving stems above the surface. There is no need for any special treatment to prepare white turtlehead for the winter, but when applicable it may be helpful to leave dropped foliage on the surface of the soil. This protects the base of the plant from freezing and provides habitat for hibernating Baltimore checkerspot butterfly larvae. 

Is White Turtlehead Toxic, Poisonous or Invasive?

White turtlehead is native to eastern North America; therefore, if you live outside of this range, this plant is potentially invasive. However, this plant does not tend to spread past a few feet, and therefore isn’t known to aggressively overtake areas other than where it was originally planted. Even so, it is always best to try to grow native plants in your pond or garden. A good starting point would be to consider other plants in the plantain family that are native to your region.

White turtlehead is not known to be toxic to humans or animals, including fish.

Is White Turtlehead Edible? Will Fish Eat it?

Native Americans used white turtlehead for a variety of medicinal uses, and boiled, fried, and ate young shoots at times. This plant has had some modern medicinal use as a digestive tonic and skin salve, but little study has been performed on its effectiveness.

White turtlehead leaves have a bitter taste, and as such are generally considered to be deer and rabbit resistant. Your fish most likely won’t eat this plant as it’ll be growing on the banks of the pond, but it should not harm fish if they do end up nibbling on it.

Where to Buy White Turtlehead & Seeds? (UK & US)

White turtlehead is easily obtained in North America from a variety of plant nurseries as well as some online outlets. Elsewhere, you’ll likely have to order white turtlehead online as it will be non-native to your area. However, remember to always try to grow plants that are native to your region whenever possible!

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