HARDINESS: Zones 4 to 8
PREFERRED SOIL pH: Near Neutral
PREFERRED SOIL TYPE: Moist
PREFERRED LIGHT: Sun to partial shade
ATTRIBUTES: Pink flower spikes on mint green foliage; for damp areas, pond sides
SEASON OF INTEREST: Mid to late summer
FAVORITES: Rose pink-flowered 'Hot Lips'
QUIRKS: Needs some shade in hot-summer climates
GOOD NEIGHBORS: Bleeding heart, columbine, garden phlox, Joe Pye weed, grasses
WHERE IT GROWS BEST: Damp soil in full sun to partial shade
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS: Drought stress; fungal mildew due to crowding, poor air circulation
RENEWING PLANTS: Plants live many years; remove older plants to relieve crowding
CRITTER RESISTANCE: Good
SOURCE: Plants, division, cuttings
DIMENSIONS: 2-4 ft (0.6-1.2 m) tall, 1-2 ft (0.3-0.6 m) wide
Turtlehead in the Landscape
Naturally damp areas in sun to partial shade are among the hardest sites to landscape. You want to grow plants that will add color to the area, but you want to avoid having to slog through the wet soil to groom, fertilize, stake, weed, or otherwise fuss with the plants. Look no further: turtleheads are the solution to such a dilemma.
Native from Newfoundland to the southern Appalachians and west to Minnesota, easygoing turtleheads are medium-sized perennials, no more than 4 ft (1.2 m) high and half as wide. Tolerant of very wet soil, they will thrive in moist conditions just as well, spreading slowly with little or no attention.The thickly stacked mint green leaves are topped in mid to late summer by pink tubular flowers that bear a whimsical resemblance to turtle heads, all with mouths agape. Butterflies find them irresistible.
'Hot Lips', a new sensation, is a variety whose foliage emerges bronze with a purple tinge, and matures to green with red stems. By late summer, rose pink flowers appear on short spires crowning the plants. 'Hot Lips' is a bit shorter than its parents, topping out between 2-3 ft (0.6-1 m).
While you wait a year or two for a handful of plants to establish, or if you just want to give the site season-long interest, try interspersing turtleheads with early bloomers, such as bleeding heart and columbine. Fellow late-season performers, such as garden phlox and ferns, will help showcase turtleheads when they reach their peak in late summer.
In nature, these perky plants enjoy the damp, fertile soil found in ditches, along the sides of streams and ponds, and in low-lying meadows, and they do well in similar garden conditions. They are less fussy about exposure than soil and moisture. Sun or partial shade are tolerated with equal good humor. However, when grown in full sun or in hot-summer regions, a 2 in (5.1 cm) deep mulch of rotted leaves and judicious watering will keep the soil from drying out during midsummer droughts and provide all the nutrients the plants need. If grown in dense shade or over-fertilized, stems that normally don't require staking can become floppy. When air circulation is stagnant, fungal mildew can mar the foliage with gray or white patches. Thin affected plants to increase air circulation and dispose of infected leaves. Otherwise, turtleheads are untroubled by pests or diseases.
Increasing the Bounty
Divide the plants in spring by cutting pieces of roots with a few new stems attached and plopping the pieces into the ground where you want them to grow. Or take 4 in (10.2 cm) long stem cuttings in early summer, rooting them in moist soil or a glass of water and transplanting them as soon as roots show. Or sow seeds in fall directly on soil in any moist site.