It was a little scrap of a plant which no one wanted that May evening. The dust had just cleared, literally, at the end of the Master Gardener Plant Swap, a night when all sorts of containers, trays, milk jugs and beer flats come into the Extension office loaded with a huge variety of plants. The crazy spreaders are there, such as gooseneck loosestrife and obedient plant, as well as the vigorous self-sowers such as perilla and flowering tobacco. Amongst the thugs, however, there were some gems like Margaret’s Japanese maples and Frank’s choice hostas. The big thrill is getting some neat plants for free.
I certainly could understand why the plant in question was left abandoned - the three leaves in a blob of dirt in a paper cup were not attractive – but if the label, stating simply Chelone, was true, this was a superior native deserving a good garden home.
At my place, small, ailing or experimental plants live in containers next to the greenhouse in the convalescent zone. They are watered daily with a dilute solution of fertilizer and given their choice of sun or shade. This VIP treatment produces great results, and when large enough to compete in the real garden, the healthy patients are transplanted.
The mystery Chelone took to this treatment immediately, and soon produced several stems covered with dark, healthy leaves. I became convinced its tag was correct – it was a turtlehead, but which species? Gardening books claim there are three native to the eastern US. Chelone glabra has white flowers, which are sometimes flushed with pink. C. lyonii has pink flowers and wider leaves with coarser teeth on the edge, and has the biggest native range. C. obliqua is similar, too, but has a shorter petiole (the stem that connects the leaf blade to the main stem) and lives in wetlands. Since mine has bloomed, I am pretty sure I’ve got C. lyonii.
All of the turtleheads like dampish soil, part shade to sun, and grow two and four feet in height. Given a site to its liking, a turtlehead plant can grow into a large clump in three to four years. It is beset by few problems, other than occasional powdery mildew, and can be pinched in spring to create a bushier plant.
Even though it is a native, turtlehead is suitable not just for a woodland or streamside garden, but also perfectly fine in a perennial garden featuring some of the fanciest European and Asian hybrids. Interestingly, plant breeders seem to have ignored this genus, as there are few cultivated varieties for sale.
The unique structure of the turtlehead’s flower makes it, well, a turtlehead. The blossoms are produced on terminal spikes, are about 1 inch in length, and do quite resemble a reptilian head. Late bloom time is also a big asset. My plant started flowering in late August, and is in full show now in mid-September.
If you can’t find an orphan, I’d recommend investing money in a turtlehead.