Turtlehead (Chelone) - a plant profile

I don't know how this plant escaped my notice especially when I read that it is native to the southeastern United States and even north Alabama. Alas, the first time I saw it was here in the Pacific Northwest. I just did a quick search through the books of my southern gurus Elizabeth Lawrence and Pam Harper and I don't see it listed in their indexes.  

Chelone (Key LOW nee) lyonii (sometimes called Lyon's Turtlehead, a nod to American botanist John Lyon (1765-1814), who was an early explorer of the southern Appalachians) is more commonly referred to as "Turtlehead" due to the fact that the blooms look like turtle heads. If this wasn't mentioned to me, I don't think I would see it but I suppose there is a similarity.
A member of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae), it flourishes near wetlands, bogs and river edges. Moist soil is appreciated in the garden but it isn't essential. Powdery mildew can be a problem, however, in dry soils. 

We sell this plant at Yard N' Garden Land in the shade perennial section although it is capable of tolerating some sun. In fact, in our garden, it gets several hours of mid-day sun. The key to it striving in sunnier locations is moist soil and ours resides next to a water feature. 

The tubular, snapdragon-like blooms appear on upright stems and begin to appear in late August and continue through fall. Generally, plants grow to 1-3' feet. 'Tiny Tortuga', pictured here, is a dwarf variety that grows to 14-16" tall. I just added another variety, 'Hot Lips', in another area of the garden. 

Chelone lyonii boasts pink blooms. There is also a white-flowered variety called Chelone glabra and Chelone obliqua with dark pink or purple flowers.

Key Characteristics

Botanical Name - Chelone lyonii
Common Name - Turtlehead, Pink Turtlehead, Lyon's Turtlehead
Type: Perennial
Foliage Type: Deciduous
Size - 1-3' tall and wide
Bloom Time - August - October (Pacific Northwest)
Flower color - Pink
Leaf color - Dark green
Exposure - Full sun to part shade
Soil Needs - Moist soil
Growth Rate - Medium
Disease Resistance - Good
Pruning - None needed
Hardiness - Zones 3
Pollinator Friendly: Yes (butterfly host plant)
Deer Resistant - Yes


Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy


  1. I've been gardening in the PNW for over 20 years and this plant escaped my radar too... I especially appreciate a dwarf variety, as garden real-estate is hard to come by in my mature garden. I'll be looking out for it on my nursery visits. I still puzzling why it was not mentioned in your reference books.

  2. I had a similar plant quite a few years ago when I was in the stage of trying EVERY different plant I saw .. for some reason I let it die out or fade out ? .. now I am wondering if I should try again and see how it behaves .. I too appreciate the chance at a dwarf version if possible .. my garden is so well packed it takes a minor miracle to find enough space for a newbie.

  3. I have a compact version in my garden. I am going to sus the native. I would like a little larger plant and one that will get larger. My compact one hasn't grown much over the years. I am glad you finally found this beauty.


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