Red turtlehead – info, planting, care and tips

Red turtlehead (Chelone obliqua)
Red turtlehead (Chelone obliqua)

The red turtlehead is an attractive perennial for pond banks and beds. It bears rose flowers, which, because of their peculiar shape, are reminiscent of the head of a turtle.

Profile of red turtlehead:

Scientific name: Chelone obliqua

Plant family: plantain family (Plantaginaceae)

Other names: rose turtlehead

Sowing time: late spring

Planting time: spring

Flowering period: August to October

Location: partially shady to shady

Soil quality: sandy to loamy, nutrient rich, humus rich

These information are for temperate climate!

Use in: flowerbeds, single position, pond planting, flower garden, natural garden, water garden

Winter hardiness: hardy, USDA Plant Hardiness Zones: 5 (-26 °C / -15 °F)

Bee and insect friendly: Yes

Plant characteristics and classification of red turtlehead

Plant order, origin and occurrence of red turtlehead

The red turtlehead is widespread in North America with a total of eight species. The species Chelone obliqua has the largest distribution as a garden plant. It grows in the southeast of the USA in humid to wet forests and mountains. But also swampy meadow-areas, it conquers quite fast. The Latin name Chelone obliqua means translated as turtle, which is probably due to the moisture demand of the red turtlehead and its look. The wild stocks are protected in some states. It belongs to the plantain family (Plantaginaceae).

Characteristics of red turtlehead


The red turtlehead grows tautly upright and has quite sparsely leafy stems. It grows 60 to 120 centimeters (24 to 48 in) high.


The broad-lanceolate leaves of the red turtlehead are arranged in opposite directions and end in a long tip. They have a rich green to blue-green color with clearly protruding leaf veins. The leaf edges are serrated.


The light rose to intense pink flowers appear from August to early October. The inflorescences sit on the stem ends and are somewhat reminiscent of snapdragons. Each individual flower has a very small opening and looks like a red turtlehead with a slightly open mouth. The upper lip is in two parts, the lower lip is in three parts and is covered inside with a bright yellow fluff.

Red turtlehead – cultivation and care


For the red turtlehead, the following applies: The sunnier it is, the more humid it must be. The wetter it is, the brighter it must be. So if the plant stands on the bank of the garden pond, directly beside a watercourse or above high groundwater, it must not be overshadowed. On the other hand, it should be somewhat drier in a location in light shade.


The ideal substrate for the red turtlehead is moist, rich in humus and nutrients and has a neutral pH value. Slightly alkaline or acidic values do not disturb the plant either. High quality potting soil, enriched with well decomposed compost is suitable for this purpose. Appropriate garden soil can of course also be used.

If the soil tends to dry out, clay or clay powder can be mixed in. Also suitable are:

  • Diatomaceous earth or kieselguhr in coarse grain size
  • Coconut fibres
  • Perlite or expanded clay

These additives also prevent compaction of the soil.


The red turtlehead can be planted in spring, approximately between April and May. Since the Chelone obliqua is very robust against cold, they usually do not mind later frosts.

The only thing to be considered is that it must be kept well moist in the first period. Watering is only done on frost-free days.

Sufficient space should be created between the individual plants, however. A distance of 40 to 50 cm (16 to 20 in) between the plants has proven to be ideal.

Cultivation in a bucket

The red turtlehead is also optimal as a potted plant due to its limited height. The necessary care effort is only slightly higher than for a location in a bed or at a water body.

The larger the tub, the less work is required. If the Chelone obliqua has a large amount of substrate available, it needs to be watered less frequently and is more robust in winter. As additional protection against evaporation and for insulation, a layer of mulch, coarse gravel or stones is recommended. This is applied to the substrate as thickly as possible and thus also reduces the weed pressure. The formation of runners is also reduced. This is advantageous in order to at least postpone necessary divisions or change of pots.

Apart from this measure and the prevention of dehydration, nothing else needs to be considered when cultivating in a tub. The plant may be placed in the blazing sun and on the south side with sufficient humidity. Even heavy rain or wind will not harm it.



Depending on the light conditions and the nature of the ground, watering the red turtlehead requires more or less effort. It should be noted that the soil must be more humid in strong sun and high temperatures than in mild weather in light shade. The substrate must never dry out, which the Chelone obliqua quickly responds to with brown leaves. The intolerance to lack of water may lead to the death of the plant within a very short time, depending on the weather. Temporary waterlogging, on the other hand, has little effect on the flower.

If you want to reduce the risk of this, apply a layer of mulch to the soil. This measure reduces evaporation. It is also recommended locating the plant directly next to water.


In the first year and in fresh soil, additional fertilization of the red turtlehead is not necessary. From the second year onwards, the supply of nutrients is recommended. Suitable fertilizers for the Chelone obliqua are

  • Compost
  • Untreated pond water
  • Liquid stinging nettle swill

Especially natural remedies are ideal for the plant. They are inexpensive and require little effort, and they do not pollute the substrate or the environment. For example, it is sufficient to use liquid nettle swill once a month from April to September or to add some compost to the soil surface in spring. If you have a pond filter or clean the water, you can even use mud and algae as fertilizer for the red turtlehead. But only if no chemicals are used.


Although the red turtlehead does not need a topiary, pruning after flowering or in spring makes sense for optical reasons.

This can be done in a radical way. The old shoots should be cut back to just above the ground.

There are advantages and disadvantages to be considered when choosing the time for this. If the Chelone obliqua is pruned immediately after the flowering, around September, this prevents self-sowing. However, the plant can still be a decorative eye-catcher in the garden until winter and can be used as food for bees. If the measure is only taken in early spring, before the first shoots appear, self-sowing is likely. Instead, the red turtlehead is available longer as a garden decoration. It can also store energy later in the year. The result is a strong growth and often also a stronger flowering.


The red turtlehead actually takes over the propagation by itself. On the one hand, it forms runners, which can be left on the mother plant or separated. On the other hand, the flowers seed themselves when given the opportunity to do so.

Hobby gardeners can also use both possibilities to propagate the plant in a targeted manner. For propagation via runners, the young shoots are first allowed to grow around the mother plant. At a size of 20 cm (8 in) they can be separated from the adult plant by a cut of the spade and then moved. The suitable time for this is late spring.

Propagation by seed is similarly simple. It is best to leave the flowers on the plant over the winter or remove them in early winter. If the pods open, the fine seeds can be shaken out with little effort. In late spring they are sown at the desired place. The seeds need light to germ. They are therefore not covered with substrate at all, but only pressed on the moist soil. For germination they also need temperatures of at least 20 °C / 68 °F. It can therefore be useful to grow them earlier in the house. For successful germination and vigorous growth, the seeds should always be kept moist and kept as light as possible.

The young plants are best planted outdoors when temperatures of at least 18 °C / 64 °F are reached. A size of 15 cm to 20 cm (6 to 8 in) is also optimal.

Diseases and pests

The red turtlehead is robust and resistant to diseases and pests. Not even snails are interested in the Chelone obliqua.

Dangerous can become the perennial therefore basically only strong care mistakes. To the typical errors in the culture of the shield flower belong:

  • A dark but wet location
  • Blazing sun on dry ground
  • Insufficient humidity
  • Low nutrient substrate
  • Long lasting waterlogging

If you choose the location carefully, keep the soil moist but avoid wetness and fertilize sufficiently, you can enjoy the plant for a long time.


The red turtlehead is very robust against cold. Freely planted in the garden a winter protection is not necessary for it. Only from temperatures below -26 °C / -15 °F it gets problematic.

If it is cultivated in tubs, it is sufficient to place it in protected areas in mild winters. In harsher climates, the planter should be at least slightly insulated. To do this, place the pot on a pallet or a wooden block and wrap it with garden fleece.

Even during the winter, the substrate must not dry out completely. If necessary, water sparingly on frost-free days. However, the plant should not be fertilized.

Use in the garden

On open spaces with wild shrub character or on the edge of a wood, on the edge of a pond, on swamp beds or even on wet meadows – Chelone obliqua fits into many areas and sets vivid accents. It also fits perfectly into natural gardens. Whether planted in groups or individually, this plant unfolds its full effect in the most diverse environments.

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