Turtlehead Plant Profile

By Marion Lobstein

TURTLEHEAD (Chelone glabra)

Chelone glabra, commonly called turtlehead, is a perennial member now placed in the Plantaginaceae (Plantain Family) but formerly in the Scrophulariaceae (Snapdragon Family). Occurring in most of Virginia’scounties, this distinctive plant with flowers resembling a turtle’s head blooms from July into September, and is found in moist conditions such as stream banks, ditches, damp woods, and swamps. This species ranges from Newfoundland to Georgia and west into Missouri. The genus name of Chelone is derived from a Greek term for tortoise and its species name of glabra means “smooth.” Other common names of turtlehead are balmony, bitter herb, snake head, snake mouth, shellflower, and fishmouth.

The white to pink flowers of turtlehead are approximately one-inch long with a calyx of 5 sepals, a two-lipped corolla with an arching upper lip resembling the top of a turtle’s head and a lower three parted lip, 5 stamens (one of which is sterile), and a pistil with two carpels. The flowers are found in tight terminal clusters as well as single flowers in the opposite leaf axils. Primary pollinators of turtlehead are bumblebees strong enough to pry open the corolla. Butterflies and even hummingbirds also may visit these flowers. The fruit that develops from each fertilized flower is a one-half inch long capsule with a papery covering that contains numerous square, winged brown seeds only 1/8 inch long that are wind-dispersed.

Each plant has a smooth, slightly angular stem that may be one to three or more feet tall.  Shiny, dark green leaves are opposite, lance-shaped, and 3-6 inches long. Turtlehead is a primary host plant for the caterpillars of the Baltimore checkered butterfly.

Medicinal uses of this plant by American Indian tribes as well as in folk or herbal medicine are numerous. These included use as a bitter tonic and/or leaf tea to simulate appetite as well as liver and stomach activity. Turtlehead also was used as a gentle laxative and to expel worms (one of its most important functions). Other uses included treating jaundice, fever, and malaria with a tonic or leaf tea. Leaves and stems were made into an ointment or poultice to treat piles, ulcers, sores, and fever blisters. Young shoots and leaves were parboiled and panfried by some Indian tribes, especially in times of famine.

In late summer and early fall, keep an eye out for this most unusual and attractive flower.  Use your imagination to enjoy the mental image of a group of small turtle heads on this unusual and attractive plant!   –Marion Lobstein

[Turtlehead photo: Stefan Bloodworth, Native Plant Information Network, Wildflower Center Digital Library, NPIN Image ID #18871, www.wildflower.org]