Plant of the Week: White Turtlehead

Chelone glabra, known as white turtlehead, blooms on the High Line. Photo by Friends of the High LineAmong the tough plants of the High Line's bog, Chelone glabra – known as white turtlehead – holds its own. Photo by Friends of the High Line

The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today.

This week we share one of our gardeners’ current favorites with you.

The bog, adjacent to the water feature on the Diller – von Furstenburg Sundeck, is planted with some notoriously tough, beautiful plants. Graceful cattails – a classic symbol of swamps and marshes – and prehistoric-looking giant horsetail fill the bog with their iconic looks. They spread fast and create thick mats of root, hogging space, water, and nutrients. Swamp rose mallow pushes up through the already thick foliage in the bog and spreads its big leaves and eight-inch-wide pink flowers, shouldering out less vigorous plants and shading shorter ones. Among these big bullies, Chelone glabra, known as white turtlehead, holds its own. This two- to four-foot tall native perennial is endemic to wetlands, river edges, and moist woods along the eastern seaboard, and while it is somewhat less striking than its showy neighbors in the bog, it is lovely in its own right and certainly full of character and virtue.

The name Chelone is derived from Greek mythology. According to various versions of the story, Chelone was a nymph, or a mortal woman, or sometimes even an animal of the forest. She angered the gods when she mocked the marriage of Zeus and Hera, taking her time to ready herself for their wedding ,and in some iterations neglecting to show up to the event altogether. Her punishment was to be transformed into a slow-moving animal, condemned to carry her home on her back. So, Chelone is an apt name for a plant whose pink-tinged white flowers resemble turtle heads stacked upon one another. The effect is both comic and pretty, but Chelone glabra is also an important plant for wetland ecosystems and gardens alike.

In the wild, Chelone glabra almost always grows in wetland areas as part of communities of plants that can both sequester surface water toxins and help regulate the hydrology of an area to prevent flooding. In fact, as a wetland indicator species, this plant is a good sign of a healthy, functioning wetland. It provides habitat for several species of moth and butterflies, including the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, which depends entirely on white turtlehead as its sole host. Chelone glabra is an excellent choice for rain gardens and bioswales, plantings that are specially designed to help absorb storm water runoff and filter toxins, especially in urban areas. White turtlehead is also useful for gardeners with tough environmental conditions to contend with. Not only does it prefer saturated soils, like the areas at the base of downspouts and under eaves, it tolerates flooding and grows well in both full sun and some shade. This is a tough plant for tough places, and the clever little turtle heads are a delight to look at.

See white turtlehead growing in the High Line’s bog, between14th and 15th Streets.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line’s most important gardening projects – become a member of Friends of the High Line today!

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