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Chelone? No Baloney!

by Ruby Weinberg

by Ruby Weinberg

From common names such as cranesbill, goatsbeard, and snakeroot, we know that imaginative gardeners sometimes see animal parts in their plants. The resemblance is surely true when it comes to our native plants called turtleheads, or Chelone spp. Their botanical name means tortoise in Greek pronounced with either a soft or hard ch and rhymes with “baloney."¯

Displayed in clusters, each of the small white, rose-pink or purple snapdragon-like flowers is two-lipped, resembling the head of a turtle with an open mouth. Your mouth, too, will be agape if you can find the tiny white “tongue"¯ protruding between some of the flower lips. Odd turtles are these because if you look closely, you'll also see a bit of white or yellow beard on the inside of the lower lip. Along with a few unopened buds, one or two flower clusters rise from terminal stems.

All Chelones need acid to slightly acid soils with a pH from 4.5 to 6.0. If you find some wild plants in nature, some of the foliage may look a little ragged from being nibbled by caterpillars, but in my own garden insect damage appears negligible.

The best thing about these attractive, long blooming perennials is that the show begins in late summer and continues on into early autumn when flower color is at a premium in most gardens. A few plants of Chelone lyonii exhibit a late season rose-pink glow when many other perennials are fast fading. Then, too, all turtleheads make long lasting cut flowers. Plant them in a bed by themselves or combine them with another long bloomer, Japanese anemone, Anemone tomentosa 'Robustissima.'

Those gardeners trying to interest children in gardening could not do better than by showing them turtleheads! This being the case, consider creating an animal garden for them of turtleheads along with the cranesbill (Geranium) and goatsbeard (Aruncus), plus foxtail lily (Eremurus), trout lily, (Erythronium), and lamb's ears (Stachys). Making children laugh while cultivating their imaginations could be as satisfying as growing attractive plants!

Two Hardy Species

Chelone lyonii:
This species reaches a height of 36 inches with multitudinous rose-pink blooms. The plants have broad, handsome, dark green leaves about 6 inches in length. Occasionally, the foliage on individual plants becomes a bronzy-red before being cut down by frost. Without division each specimen grows into a massive clump many feet across. If too large for your space, they can easily be chopped into small clumps. Attend to this in early spring or late autumn.

If grown in heavy shade, turtlehead stems might become floppy. This being the case, they can be pinched back. Do this early enough in the season so that there is time for blooms to form. This may be preferable to staking. An even better tactic might be to prune away the adjacent shade-creating branches of other plants. A little more sun should give sturdier growth.

C. lyonii is usually recommended for partially shaded wet places such as on the edge of a stream. Those in my garden, however, grow very nicely in a sunny place with moderately moist soil. They do appreciate being irrigated during a mid-summer drought.

C.l. 'Hot Lips' is the cultivar now most commonly available for sale. Some growers advertise it as having red stems. My own plants, purchased many years ago, appear to be the same as Hot Lips but with green stems. One of my plants has leaves that start out green but eventually become red. If red stems or red leaves are what you want, make your nursery selection in autumn.

Although originally a native of our southeastern mountains, C. lyonii has migrated northward and is hardy throughout the northeastern states. They are not plants for hot, dry, sandy locations.

Chelone glabra:
I recently discovered a few small clumps of this species in heavy shade on the edge of our brook. According to Rob Fletcher, the proprietor of Gardens of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina, C. glabra is not as vigorous as C. lyonii and has narrower leaves, but it eventually reaches the same height and width. Blooms are white tinged with pink. Since it is often difficult to find late summer flowering perennials for wet shade on the edge of a water garden, C glabra. might fill this void.

C.g. 'Black Ace' has just been introduced as a very tall turtlehead with dark foliage that eventually turns green. It is valuable in damp soils where substantial height is desired.

Obtaining Turtleheads
1. All Chelones can be grown from seed started in late fall or early spring after being stratified in a cold frame or refrigerator.
2. Chelone plants a few years old can easily be divided into small clumps if and when they have outgrown their original positions.
3. Buy them either potted or bare root

Selections for the Northeastern Garden
1. Chelone lyonii 'Hot Lips': broad, 3-feet tall, possibly with red stems and rose-pink blooms.
2. Chelone glabra: 3-feet tall, white blooms with a tinge of pink; needs some shade.
3. Chelone glabra 'Black Ace': 6 feet tall, very dark foliage until late summer.
4. Chelone oblique: a southern turtlehead 2-4 feet tall, white or purple blooms.

Where To Purchase Plants
Thompson and Morgan: www.thompson-morgan.com
Garden in the Woods, New England Wild Flower Society: www.newfs.org/garden
Forestfarm: www.forestfarm.com
Gardens of the Blue Ridge, NJ: www.gardensoftheblueridge.com
Plant Delights Nursery, Inc., NC: www.plantdelights.com
Pleasant Run Nursery, Inc., NJ; www.pleasantrunnursery.com
Sunny Borders Nurseries, Inc., OH; www.sunnyborder.com
Woodstock Wildflower Farm, CT: www.woodstockwildflower.com/

Where To See Plants
Garden in the Woods, New England Wild Flower Society, Framingham, MA

** All photos by Martin Weinberg

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