Monday, February 15, 2010


Around here they call this Turtlehead, though Chelone is the proper name. It is also known as balmony, shellflower, salt-rheum weed, bitter herb (I think more than one thing is called by this name, though), hummingbird tree and snake-mouth. I think I'll stick with Turtlehead.
The plant doesn't appear in the older European herbals as it is native to the Americas. It is a perenneal and is found usually, and rather sparingly, along stream edges and in other wet, shady places in Canada and throughout the United States, growing about two feet high. I have it growing in a shady, though rather dry spot that is only damp after heavy rains, being at the edge of a drainage ditch. It seems quite happy there, so I think if you remember to give it adequate water, the stream or pondside setting is not required.
The descriptive names come from the similarity of the appearance of the half-opened flowers to the head otf a turtle or snake, while the other names describe its taste or values. It is said to have been an important Native American medicine, but research does not disclose what tribe used it. The foliage and flower color can be highly variable.
The chemical properties of chelone are extracted either by tincture or infusion. The best statement of its use in medicine is that in Grieve's Herbal:

The whole, fresh plant is chopped, pounded to a pulp, and weighed, and a tincture is prepared with alcohol. The decoction is made with 2 ounces of the fresh herb to the pint (a dose being 1 to 2 ounces of the decoction) ... The leaves have antibilious, anthelmintic, tonic and degergent properties, with a peculiar action on the liver ... As an ointment it is recommended for inflamed tumours, irritating ulcers, inflamed breasts, piles, et cetera.

Speaking of its value in liver conditions, and under the heading of curiosa, we find one authority saying the turtlehead is a "remedy for the left lobe of the liver." Curious indeed.
Totally off topic, we are expecting another 5-10 inches of snow today, depending on which forecast you listen to or read. I would prefer none since there is still a foot on the ground and the road is finally passable again, as of late yesterday afternoon. I do enjoy snow in the winter and there isn't anything better for protecting plants from the cold, but enough is enough. If the snow isn't heavy this afternoon, I'll continue my travels around the gardens freeing plants from their heavy coats of ice and snow. We had 20-30 foot tall trees whose very tops had to be gotten out of the snow on the ground so they could stand up again. Most things pop right back up, small maples especially, though some, like some of the hollies, will have to be pulled back up in the spring and tied to get their shapes back. Luckily very little has broken. Hope you're all staying warm wherever you are.


Sylvia (England) said...

Jane, thank you for this the timing is good - I have just ordered some Chelone. My husband wants to grow them in a pot but I think they would look good in the garden, if I found the right spot. What is the foliage like? How long does it say around for?

Best wishes Sylvia (England)

Hoot Owl Hollow Nursery said...

I think they will be much happier in the garden. I don't know of anyone who has had success with them in pots. I don't think they like much if any disturbance once they get established. The foliage is, well, green. The fact that I can't remember it enough to describe it must mean it is pretty nondescript. It is just a nice green plant until late summer when it is covered with the nicest pink flowers when everything else seems to be yellow and orange. The first good frost does it in for the season.