Plant of the Week: White turtlehead

In the midst of harsh winter, gardens on the High Line continue to offer a glimpse of wild nature. Here, the perennials that have already finished this season's growth are left uncut until early spring. These plants display their natural forms and structures more prominently now than any other season with their dried stems and well preserved seed-heads. Although skeleton-like and colorless, they provide seasonal interests as well as food and shelter that many birds and insects rely on to survive in bleak winter months.

White turtle head, Chelone glabra, standing in the High Line's bog, holds its dried flower stalk in the blustery winds. After the spike of pink-tinged white flowers bloomed from mid-summer to mid-fall, Chelone glabra now has the clusters of empty seed capsules that have already released the winged seeds.

It is easy to identify Chelone glabra when the plant is in bloom. The tubular flower, which has two lips and is somewhat flattened at the opening, supposedly resembles a turtle head. In fact, the genus name Chelone derives from the name of a mountain nymph who became a tortoise in Greek mythology. The flowers are primarily pollinated by bumblebees. Unlike other insects, bumblebees have the strength to push their body into the narrow entrance between the flower lips to reach the nectar.

Chelone glabra in bloom.

Chelone glabra is native to the United States and grows in wet thickets and prairies, sedge meadows, seeps, streambanks, marshes, and fens. The steady growth of Chelone glabra is a good indicator that the environmental condition of the wetland is healthy and functioning. In Maryland, Chelone glabra is particularly important for the official state insect, the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly. The butterfly use Chelone glabra as the primary host plant which the caterpillars feed on. Although once common, the Baltimore checkerspot is now listed as a threatened species in Maryland. Conservation efforts like that of the Baltimore Checkerspot Recovery Team focuses on establishing wetlands that include a large population of Chelone glabra to restore their habitat.

Chelone glabra prefers moist to wet, humus soils in part shade. If growing the plant in a sunny area, apply a composted leaf mulch to keep soil moist. If growing the plant in deep shade, pinch back the stems in spring to reduce plant height. Otherwise, they will most likely need staking. The plant may be susceptible to mildew when soils are dry or air circulation is poor. It spreads through rhizomes. USDA zone 3 to 8.

Chelone glabra can be found in the bog at The Diller-von Furstenberg Sundeck, between 14th and 15th Street.

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TD Bank is the Presenting Green Sponsor of the High Line.

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