What is Chelone?

Donn Saylor

Chelones are flowering perennials native to eastern North America; they are noted for being robust herbaceous plants. Due to the unique shape of their flowers, they are often referred to as turtleheads. They typically bloom in shades of white, pink, or purple during late summer or early fall.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

The name "chelone" is derived from the Greek word for tortoise. It presumably came about because the blossoms of the chelone resemble small turtle heads. In Greek mythology, the nymph Chelone mocked Zeus and Hera's marriage, and, as a result, she was turned into a turtle.

Chelones grow both as wildflowers and garden plants. They prefer areas with moist soil, such as swamps, bogs, streams, and woods. When cultivated in a garden, they flourish with regular watering and can be planted in either sunny or partially shaded areas.

When planting chelone, gardeners traditionally space the seedlings 18–24 inches (45–60 centimeters) apart. Though they have been known to grow as high as 60 inches (150 centimeters), most chelone grow to be between 24 and 36 inches (60–90 centimeters) tall. In general, chelone prefer soil with an average to high acidic content.

The seeds of the chelone can easily be collected for planting. Experts advise leaving the pods on the plant as they dry. Once they have dried sufficiently, the pods can be cracked open and the seeds withdrawn.

The leaves of the chelone grow opposite one another on the stem. They are glossy and slightly jagged around the edges. Each leaf is usually long and slender.

The flowers of the chelone have been said to resemble both snapdragons and foxglove. They typically grow in clusters, and each bloom can be likened to a tiny turtle's head with a slightly parted mouth. The "bottom lip" of the turtlehead sports a beard.

Chelone are found in the eastern half of North America. From Newfoundland to Florida, Minnesota to Mississippi, chelone can be grown both in backyard gardens and spotted as a wildflower on roadsides and in meadows. The wildflower varieties of chelone are thought to have escaped from private gardens at some point in the past, resulting in the plant's dispersal in the wild.

Some U.S. states, however, have recognized that chelone are in short supply. As a result, several states have labeled the plant either endangered or threatened. In Arkansas, for example, the rose turtlehead variety is endangered. The red turtlehead is endangered in Kentucky and threatened in Maryland. Michigan classifies the purple turtlehead as an endangered plant.

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