Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for Red Turtlehead - Chelone obliqua   L.
Members of Plantaginaceae:
Members of Chelone with account distribution info or public map:
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Section 6 » Order Scrophulariales » Family Plantaginaceae
DistributionPresent over nearly all of the Mountains, most prevalent in the southern half. Also scattered in the Coastal Plain, but mainly in the northern portion near VA; a few records south to Pender and New Hanover counties. Absent in the Piedmont, barely ranging into the eastern edge (Nash County), and possibly along the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment.

This is a rather scarce Eastern species, with highly disjunct populations -- such as in the southern Appalachians, along the Mississippi River and tributaries in the IA, IL, and IN region; and in southeastern VA and adjacent NC. It does range from MD on the north to GA on the south.
AbundanceRare to locally uncommon in the southern Mountains, especially ones along the southern border. Very rare in the northern Mountains. Rare in the northern Coastal Plain near the VA line, and very rare and local southward. This is a Significantly Rare species, as identified by the NCNHP; actually, that agency lists each of the two varieties as Significantly Rare.
HabitatThis is a wetland species of flat ground. Its habitats are quite similar to those of C. glabra, a much more widespread species in NC. It is found in swamp openings and edges, wooded streambanks, seepages, wet bottomlands, and ecotones of swamps and tidal freshwater marshes.
PhenologyBlooms mainly in late summer and fall, from August into October, and fruits from September to November.
IdentificationThis is a standard turtlehead in structure, being essentially unbranched and growing to 2-2.5 feet high. It has scattered opposite leaves, with only a short petiole about 2/5-inch long. The leaves are lanceolate or oblong-lanceolate, about 4 inches long but only about 1-inch wide, with a lightly serrated margin. The widest part of the leaf is slightly below the middle. The inflorescence is a several inch high spike at the end of the stem, with bright purple to rose flowers in the shape of a turtle head and about 1.3 inches long. As with C. glabra and C. lyonii, the flowers are not strongly ranked as seen from above, so are not stacked on top of other flowers below; C. cuthbertii has 4 very neatly arranged ranks of flowers. It can be separated from C. glabra by flower color, as that species has white flowers or white flowers with rose tips; C. lyonii has a much longer petiole, over 1-inch long, and its leaves are ovate and clearly widest toward the base; and C. cuthbertii has essentially sessile leaves and 4-ranked flowers. This is a species that you will have a hard time finding on your own, with the best bet along the floodplains and edges of rivers and larger creeks in Transylvania and adjacent counties. Though it has a common name of Red Turtlehead, the flowers are purplish-rose, nowhere near red!
Taxonomic CommentsThere are two varieties in the state. The nominate one -- C. obliqua var. obliqua -- is scattered in both the Coastal Plain and in the mountains, but var. erwiniae is limited to just the mountains. For most folks, simply getting the species correctly identified will be the key, not getting the variety correct.

Other Common Name(s)Pink Turtlehead
State RankS2 [S2S3]
Global RankG4
State Status[SR-T]
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