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U.S. Forest Service

Plant of the Week

Map of the United States showing states. States are colored green where turtlehead may be found. Range map of turtlehead. States are colored green where the species may be found.

Closeup turtlehead flowers. Turtlehead (Chelone glabra). Photo by Thomas G. Barnes, University of Kentucky.

Chelone glabra. Turtlehead (Chelone glabra). Photo by Steve Baskauf, University of Tennessee Herbarium.

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)

By Patricia J. Ruta McGhan

Turtlehead is also known as balmony, bitter herb, codhead, fish mouth, shellflower, snakehead, snake mouth, and turtle bloom. It is part of the Figwort family (Scrophulariacea) and has the scientific name Chelone glabra. In Greek mythology, there was a nymph named Chelone who insulted the gods; in punishment, she was turned into a turtle. The flowers of this plant are said to look like the heads of turtles. Glabra is from the Latin word meaning smooth because of the lack of hairs or texture on the stems and leaves.

Turtlehead is a perennial found throughout most of the eastern half of the United States. It generally is found along stream banks and damp ground, and usually grows to a height of 2 to 3 feet. The plant has a square stem with leaves that are opposite, toothed, and narrow. White flowers, often with a pink tinge, appear between mid summer and fall. The flowers are irregular, two-lipped and grow in dense spikes.

Growing requirements for turtleheads are moist to wet or mucky soils, a neutral soil pH, and light levels between full sun and partial shade.

Turtlehead plants are used in natural medicine. Traditional practices create a tonic from this plant that is claimed to be beneficial for indigestion, constipation, and stimulating the appetite. It is also an anthelmintic (de-wormer) and a salve from the leaves may relieve itching and inflammation.

For More Information

PLANTS Profile - Chelone glabra, turtlehead