Friday, August 16, 2013

Native Species Profile - White Turtlehead

To the average person, the names of many common wildflowers are wrapped in mystery.  Who was Joe Pye and why is a weed named after himWhat do ducks  and potatoes have in common? Other names are completely obvious.  If you see at a Lizard's Tail, it indeed looks like a lizard's tail - no imagination (or knowledge of microscopic plant anatomy, or obscure Etruscan mythology) is required to see how it acquired its name.
 Another plant with a delightfully obvious name is White Turtlehead

White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)


White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) is a 1-3 foot tall perennial plant that is native to the Eastern United States and Canada.  It is found in every state east of the Mississippi River except Florida and ranges west into Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas.  Its range covers parts of 29 states and every Canadian Province from Manitoba eastward.

A fairly adaptable plant, Turtlehead will grow anywhere it receives sufficient moisture, but it prefers low wet ground with rich organic soils.  It can be found in habitats such as swamps, shorelines, floodplain woodlands, riverbanks, and wet meadows.  It can survive equally well in locations with full sun, partial shade, and full shade.

White Turtlehead typically has a single unbranching stem (rarely branching) with pairs of opposite leaves.  The leaves are lanceolate in shape and have finely serrated margins.  Each pair of leaves is rotated 90 degrees from the previous pair.

White Turtlehead - note the pairs of opposite leaves, with each pair being rotated 90 degrees


The flowers of White Turtlehead grow in a spike at the top of the plant.  Individual flowers on the spike flower sequentially from the bottom of the spike to the top.  The flowers are typically white (as the name of the plant suggests), but sometimes have a pinkish tint.  Individual flowers are 1 to 1.5 inches long and tubular-shaped.  Each flower is indeed shaped like a turtle's head with the opening of the flower shaped like the turtle's mouth. The top part of the flower consists of a 2-lobed lip and the bottom of a 3-lobed lip.  The middle lobe on the lower lip is densely covered with fine hairs.  White Turtlehead blooms between late July and early October.

Closeup of White Turtlehead blooms - note the 2 part upper lip and 3 part lower lip

Bumble bees are the primary pollinators of the White Turtlehead. Bumblebees force their way into the tube to access the nectar at the rear, becoming covered with pollen in the process. The plant is also visited by butterflies and hummingbirds.  It is the primary host plant of the Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) butterfly.



Basic Information


White Turtlehead 
Chelone glabra

Height:  1-3’ tall

Habitat:  low wet ground, along streams, swamps, shorelines, wet meadows, wet woodlands

Flower Color:  White

Bloom Time:  late July – October

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