Posted: August 29, 2023
Native to all of New England and commonly found along the edges of ponds, streams and other wetland margins, white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) is one of my favorite wildflowers. White flowers one to two inches long grow in spikes at the apex of the plant, and bloom in late summer and early fall. The name is derived from the fact that the upper lip of each flower arches over the lower lip, somewhat resembling the head of a turtle. In fact, the genus name comes from the Greek word for “tortoise” in reference to this turtlehead shape of the flowers.
Its turtle-like appearance is not, however, the reason this is one of my favorite wildflowers. My attraction to this plant stems from its interaction with its pollinators. Bumblebees (Bombus sp.) frequent this plant, but due to the small opening presented by the overhanging upper lip of the snapdragon-like flowers, they must force their way into the stiff flowers to reach the plentiful nectar inside. As the bumblebee pushes its way little-by-little into the flower, the pulsating of the bee’s body gives the appearance that the turtlehead shaped flower is chewing and swallowing the bee, until the bee is completely hidden inside of the flower. Watch a bit longer and it will appear as if the flower spit the bee back out, unharmed by all this “chewing” but generously dusted with pollen to carry to the next plant.
Although less showy in the spring and early summer, when the flowers have not yet bloomed, turtlehead is the one of the main host plants of the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas phaeton). Broods of the Baltimore checkerspot caterpillar will feed in a communal web on the plant until autumn and then hibernate on the dead stems overwinter. The adults rarely visit the plant other than to deposit eggs.
Written by Elise Leduc-Fleming, WLT Executive Director