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Plant Profiles

Black-leaved Turtlehead



Most turtleheads are one-season wonders, with tidy growth and—surprise!—many weeks of flowers late Summer into Fall.  'Black Ace' is the two-season champ.  Yes, the white flowers, unique for the genus, are great. 


They crowd terminal spikes of flowers, and emerge over two months.




But the real stunner with 'Black Ace' is the Spring show.  The new foliage is near-black, perhaps the ultimate thumb-your-nose at Spring's typical palette of bright and eager pinks, yellows, and reds.  Stay tuned for that update. 



Here's how to grow this essential two-season perennial:


Latin Name

Chelone glabra 'Black Ace'

Common Name

Black-leaved turtlehead


Plantaginaceae, the Snapdragon family.

What kind of plant is it?

Herbaceous perennial.


Zones 3 - 8.



Rate of Growth


Size in ten years

A clump two to three feet across and, depending on the richness of the soil and the plenitude of water, to six feet tall. 


When well-grown (I'm still reaching for that happy goal), energetic, with many stems nearly as orderly and vertical as organ pipes.  Given its potential mature height of six feet, a vigorous mature clump of Chelone glabra can be an exciting presence long before it caps that performance with its showy flowers.

Grown for

its flowers: These are white and two-petaled.  The upper petal creates a hooded dome to the flower that combines with the narrow but wide gap between it and the down-at-the-corners lower petal to create the look of a turtle opening its mouth in disdain.  The flowers crowd a spike-like terminal raceme at the tip of every stem.   


its startling early-season foliage, which is dusty black with green undertones.  In my experience, by July the foliage has renounced black in favor of plain green.

Flowering season

Chelone glabra has a gratifyingly late and long season of bloom, from late in August into October.  As I write, the spikes of buds at the tips of some of the stems are only just emerging; they'll mature to flowers in weeks to come.

Color combinations

The calyx at the base of the flower is light green; the flower petals are pure white.  The leaves themselves are a surprising matte-black early in the season and dark green the rest.  All four colors—both the greens, the white, and the black—can act as neutrals in the presence of almost any other colors.  The best combinations for the flowers, perhaps, are with other whites and greens.  The dramatic early-season leaves show best amid foliage that can bring brighter colors such as yellow, silver, and white into view, either through solid coloring or variegation.  The foliage will show handsomely amid these same colors after it matures to its dark-green Summer color.

Plant partners

'Black Ace' needs neighbors that enhance its early-season show of ultra-dark foliage, and which are still presentable months later, when the white flowers finally appear.  The narrow pointed leaves welcome contrast with rounded ones of any size, as well as the feathery foliage of true ferns or ferny-leaved perennials.  Leaves that are grassy or sword-like are likely to seem repetitious.  Those that are lighter colored or variegated will help emphasize the Chelone foliage. 


If growing in a bed with normal drainage and moisture, hostas would seem the obvious choice, with all possible options for round foliage in any size, and with highly contrasting shades and patterns of white, yellow, pale blue, or green.  But by September, the foliage may have become shabby, and you can't cut hosta to the ground in late July and have a second crop of leaves ready to harmonize with the Chelone in September.  Growing the hosta in more shade can help preserve foliage quality, but the Chelone grows best in full sun. 


Comfrey cultivars with colorful foliage could be an alternative, because you can renew the entire clump by cutting it to the ground once or even twice during the season.  The light green leaves of Symphytum x uplandicum 'Axminster Gold' are huge, and heavily margined in yellow.  They are eager to emerge in the Spring and, for a while, maintain a basal habit that works well at the front of 'Black Ace'.  They can begin to look tired as well as too large as the colony begins to develop flowering stems in mid-Summer, by which time the foliage of 'Black Ace' is turning green and becoming less interesting, as well.  Cutting the comfrey to the ground will stimulate a second growth of foliage that (usually) stays in good shape, and at a generous but not overwhelming scale, into the September flowering season of Chelone.


Another hosta-like choice, but with more durable foliage, is Trachystemon orientalis, with broad leaves that are pointed like those of comfrey, but on the scale of those of bergenia.  I'm just getting going with this tough perennial, which is reputed to have the groundcovering aspirations of Lysimachia.  The tall stems and narrow habits of Chelone could allow it to rise up through the surf of Trachystemon growth.  It would be safer to have the Chelone be sited in a low spot by the Trachystemon colony.  Chelone will receive the additional surface water it wants, while also enhancing the drainage that Trachystemon wants.   


Thread-leaf bluestar, Amsonia hubrichtii, would be one of the effective foreground partners with ferny leaves.  The dark foliage of 'Black Ace' could "blackdrop" its blue early-season flowers, while its clump of feathery stems stays erect and graceful the entire rest of the season—and might even adopt its butter yellow fall color while the last of the white Chelone flowers are emerging.


If you're growing Chelone in wetter habitat, consider backing it with taller moisture-loving fern species such as Matteuccia or Osmunda.  Large-leaved moisture-lovers include all forms of Rodgersia.         

Where to use it in your garden

Over the Summer, Chelone can become tall enough to anchor the back of a bed.  But then the stunning blackness of its new growth, which is considerably shorter, would be difficult to appreciate.  Instead, consider a site near the front, with perhaps just a low mounder between Chelone and the bed's edge.  See "Plant partners" above.      


Chelone appreciates soil moisture, and will grow in full sun if sited in prize-winningly rich soil, or in almost any soil that experiences boggy conditions.  Afternoon shade or dappled shade is safer if less moisture is available, although the plants will be shorter and sparser.

How to handle it

This hardy perennial is easy to establish in good soil that receives enough water that the plant doesn't struggle during a drought.  Plant in Spring or Fall.  Cut down the old stems before new growth emerges in the Spring.  Because the moisture-retentive soil that Chelone craves can be so muddy during the Winter, complete this grooming in Fall, before the onset of the steady wetness that, so often, typifies Winter weather and soils both.  


Chelone increases but, in my experience, doesn't run.  Then again, I have yet to grow the plant with all the water it really wants, so my growth may well be less vigorous than possible.  Colonies need digging only to limit growth not, as with many daisies, to maintain vigor year to year.      

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

Chelone carries on, if modestly, in regular garden beds.  For the most expansive growth and floriferous performance, experiment with how much moisture the plant can tolerate.  For once, poor drainage is a positive.  Does your garden have a low spot that floods in storms?  That is squishy from a nearby stream or pond?  That is at the bank of that stream or pond?  Do you have a water garden that doesn't yet have all possible bog plantings?  Chelone could be your best friend. 


My garden's rich soil, level terrain and, seeming, high water table have not by any means tested my Chelone colonies' water tolerance.  (This is another way of saying that my colonies aren't nearly as voluptuous as I'd like.)  To help their burgeoning, I'm going to add a large pot of 'Black Ace' to one of my galvanized-washtub water gardens.  These normally have water cannas and crinums, perennial hibiscus, callas, and horse-tail.  During the Winter, that potted colony will sit in the dirt-floor basement, where it will stay damp and dormant from November into April.  I'm also going to create an in-ground bog for another colony, by sinking a ten-gallon nursery pot completely into the ground, lining it with a heavy black "contractor" bag, poking just one tiny hole in the bottom of that bag, filling the bag-lined pot with gorgeous soil, and planting the Chelone.  Such a bog will retain surface and rain water wonderfully, but will need supplemental watering during a normal Summer.  


Chelone glabra is tough as well as persistent; about the only conditions that will subdue it are lack of sufficient moisture. 


There are only four species in the entire Chelone genus—all native to eastern North America—and few gardens in Zones 4 to 8 should be without a couple of them.  The white flowers of C. glabra enable it to coordinate with any color scheme; its leaves are also noticeably narrower than those of the other species. 


The flowers of C. lyonii, C. obliqua, and C. cuthbertii are typically pink, in one shade or another, and so can comfortably associate only with white, pink, rose, blue, and burgundy.  These three pink-flowered species differ only modestly in the width of their leaves, the richness of the green of their foliage, and the pinkness of their flowers.  The flowers of C. cuthbertii are described as more lilac-pink, whereas some forms of C. obliqua are described as having flowers so deeply pink that they veer into purple or even red.  I live in hope that such unusual C. obliqua beauties will be brought into the trade.  The flowers of Chelone lyonii 'Hot Lips' are deeper pink, and the foliage deeper green.  The flowers of Chelone lyonii var. purpurea are perhaps the deepest pink of all, with the base of the petals a contrasting white.


Unless you're featuring native perennials—and until a near-red form of Chelone obliqua is selected and propagated—one white-flowered form and one pink-flowered form of Chelone would be plenty.  For white, plant 'Black Ace': Why have just the white flowers of the straight species, Chelone glabra, when you can also have the bizarre foliage of 'Black Ace'?  It will be especially welcome in Spring, when its funereal aplomb will be the strongest contrast to that season's more typical eager optimism.


For pink, choose either 'Hot Lips' or C. lyonii var. purpurea.    


On line.


By division.

Native habitat

Chelone glabra is widely native to eastern North America, from Georgia to Newfoundland, and Mississippi to Manitoba.  'Black Ace' was first introduced by the infamous, as well as fabulous, North Carolina nursery, Plant Delights.

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