White Turtlehead

Chelone glabra

Description & Overview

White Turtlehead is a Wisconsin native perfectly at home in moist soils along riverbanks, wetlands, marshes, and floodplains. These flowers are a welcome site late in the season, and the white blooms are often buzzing with the activity of bumblebees. A part of the penstemon family, the petals are fused, creating a tube with two lips at the opening that act as a landing strip for pollinators. The opening is a tight fit for bumblebees to push through, but push they do, disappearing into the flower completely. A rather entertaining, and amusing, display.

Core Characteristics

Mature Height: 2-3 feet
Mature Spread: 1.5-2.5 feet
Growth Rate: Moderate
Growth Form: Erect, Spreading
Light Requirements: Full Sun to Partial Shade
Site Requirements: Moist to Wet Soil
Flower: White with Pink Tinge
Bloom Period: August, September
Foliage: Green, Lanceolate, Finely Toothed, Opposite
Fall Color: N/A
Fruit Notes: Capsule

Suggested Uses:

White Turtlehead naturally inhabits streambanks, swampy lowlands, floodplains, marshes, and moist woodlands, and can be found in both full sun and part shade.

Add to rain gardens and part-shade gardens for some late-season interest! Plant in a cut flower garden as the stems are strong and the flowers unique. Perfect for naturalization or restoration of a moist area near water as that is its natural habitat.

Wildlife Value:

White Turtlehead is a late-season bloomer that is a welcome food source for bees in August and September. Bumblebees are its main pollinators. The tube of the flower is a tight fit, but they are strong enough to pry open the flower and reach the nectar at the flower’s base. Bombus impatiens and Bombus vagans are reportedly the most common visitors.

This is the preferred host plant for caterpillars of the Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly. Check plants for eggs in early summer, you may see a silken nest where the larvae feed communally. In mid-fall, they descend to the ground and construct webs in leaves and debris to hibernate in through the winter. In spring they emerge and begin feeding again, then pupate in May. This is another reason why leaving plant debris over the winter is crucial to the survival of all insects.

Maintenance Tips:

White Turtlehead slowly spreads via rhizomes, forming colonies if not contained. They can be periodically thinned out or planted strategically among other perennials that will inhibit spread.

Consider adding a healthy mulch layer around plants to lock in moisture as this plant does best in soil that is consistently moist.


Keep an eye out for powdery mildew – improve air circulation around the plants and avoid overhead watering, and keep the soil at a consistent moisture level if possible.

We haven’t seen any evidence of turtlehead being browsed upon by deer or rabbits.

Leaf Lore:

Name: The genus, Chelone, is derived from the Greek word, ‘Chelon’, meaning “tortoise.” This is due to the shape of the flower and its resemblance to a tortoise or turtle’s head. The species, glabra, means “smooth” in Latin, in reference to the lack of hairs on the stem.

Other common names include Fish Mouth, Shellflower, Snake Mouth, Bitter Herb, Balmony, Snakehead, and Codhead.

Historical Uses: The Cherokee people historically used turtlehead as a dietary aid to increase appetite, as a roundworm treatment, and as a laxative. Other groups used the plant internally to prevent pregnancy or mashed the plant into a poultice to treat skin lesions.

Companion Plants:

These recommendations enjoy the same conditions as White Turtlehead.

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