Turtleheads (Chelone) are commonly found in damp locations, such as wet meadows, ditches, or bogs.  They are so named because the 2-lipped flower resembles the head of a turtle. Flowers are borne in dense erect spikes. Each flower head contains 4 fertile stamens and a long non-fertile filament or staminode that protrudes from between the lips. In addition to their flower & staminode color, Turtleheads may be distinguished by the length of the petiole (leaf stalk) & shape of the leaf as shown below:

Cuthbert’s Turtlehead (Chelone cuthbertii)

  • Flower: Purplish
  • Staminode: Purple
  • Petioles: Sessile (attached directly to the stem), less than 0.1” long 
  • Leaves: Lanceolate (longer than wide) with a rounded base; 3-5” long, 0.5-1.5”wide
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: From the Greek for “tortoise” and for Alfred Cuthbert, an amateur naturalist who collected plants in northern Georgia and northern Florida

White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra

  • Flower: White, sometimes tinged green, yellow, or purple
  • Staminode: Green
  • Petioles: Sessile, less than 0.4” long
  • Leaves: Narrowly lanceolate; 4-7” long, 0.4-2” wide
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: Meaning “smooth or hairless”

Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii)

  • Flower: Pink or rose-purple. The lower lip has a prominent yellow beard
  • Staminode: White, sometimes with a pink tip
  • Petioles: To 1.5” long
  • Leaves: Rounded base; 3-5” long, 1.5-3” wide; tapering to a long point; widest below the middle
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: For Scottish plant collector, John Lyon 

Red Turtlehead (Chelone obliqua)

  • Flower: Pink or reddish-purple
  • Staminode: White
  • Petioles: To 0.5” long
  • Leaves: Narrow & elongate; 3.5-5.5” long, 0.75-2.5” wide; widest below the middle; tapering to a long point
  • Derivation of Scientific Name: For “oblique, slanted, or diagonal”

Based on a key created by Joe Standaert. Drawings by Joe Standaert & photography by Ken Borgfeldt & Penny Longhurst


Boland, Todd: Turtleheads – the Genus Chelone. Dave’s Garden Guides, 2012

Horn, Dennis; Cathcart, Tavia; Hemmerly, Thomas E.; & Duhl, David: Wildflowers of Tennessee the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians: The Official Field Guide of the Tennessee Native Plant Society. Lone Pine Publishing, p. 282-283, 2005

Name That Plant – Chelone

Newcomb, Lawrence: Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Little Brown,  p, 94, 1989

Radford, Albert E. Ahles, Harry E., & Bell, C. Ritchie: Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. The University of North Carolina Press, p. 945-946, 1968

Richard M. Smith: Look Again! Chelone

Smith, Richard M.: Wildflowers of the Southern Mountains. University of Tennessee Press, p. 154-155, 1998

Weakley, Alan S. : Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States. UNC Herbarium, p. 1177-1188, 2015