Chelone is a word that rhymes with 'baloney'. In Greek mythology Chelone was a nymph who insulted the gods by not attending the marriage of Zeus to Hera. Zeus was so angry he pushed her house over on top of her, and the gods were so angry they punished her by turning her into a turtle. Not only was she condemned to forever carrying her house around on her back, she was also condemned to silence. The word chelone is the Greek word for tortoise, and in ancient times, the tortoise was a symbol of silence.
I thought that was the saddest thing I had ever heard the first time I heard that story. I must have been very young and I don't remember who told me, but when my great Aunt Bett and I were climbing mountains looking for herbs, we came across the white turtlehead. It was also called snakehead back in southeast Kentucky Aunt Bett said, because it also looked like an openmouthed snake. Though she didn't use it often, Aunt Bett told me it did have some medicinal value.
Chelone glabra is the white turtlehead, though the plant also blooms in red and pink. I am most familiar with the white blossomed plant, and it really does look like a small white turtle with its mouth open, just ready to pounce on an unsuspecting victim. The bloom is carried in clusters over a dark green foliage. The plant can grow to be 4 feet in height, and is pretty hard to miss when you come upon a mass of them. It does very well in shade, and dearly loves wet soil making it an excellent candidate for a rain garden. If you look closely, you will notice its resemblance to the snapdragon, and it is a member of that family.
It is a late blooming plant, not even bothering to show its white face until August, and then blooming constantly through October. It is a wildflower that will easily naturalize. It often grew alongside the creek that ran from my house down the holler to Aunt Bett's home, loving the shade and the moist fertile soil. I understand that it also will adapt itself to regular gardens with less moisture, but it blooms much better in dappled sunlight or shade, and in very moist soil.
Caterpillars of the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly rely almost exclusively on this rare wetland plant, and will rarely settle for any other plant, even those nearby.
My great Aunt Bett, who regularly made medicines from plants, told me that the Cherokee used an infusion of the leaves and roots to improve appetite, to cure fevers, and to rid a body of worms. She also said they made a decoction to use as a salve to treat skin sores. Other Native Americans used it to treat skin eruptions and disorders. They also made an ointment exclusively from the leaves of the plant to treat painful skin ulcers and tumors. They believed that the best time to collect the leaves for this ointment was during flowering, when food was stored heavily in the leaves for the blossoms themselves.
It was not a plant that I noticed very often when I was growing up, it wasn't one of those life and death plants that I was used to collecting with Aunt Bett. I didn't even miss it very much over the years, until recently when I was wandering around in the Land Between the Lakes near where I live and came across a rotting dead tree limb that blocked my walking path. Thinking to go around it, I stepped into a boggy wet area and I saw the turtlehead, growing happily in swampy land that I didn't want to walk in. Seeing its little turtle mouth open to the dappled sunlight, I could not help thinking of another time in the mountains of my youth.
Aunt Bett kept homemade salves handy for people who needed them, and turtlehead was one that was mixed with other plants into a decoction, then added in its concentrate form to a hardening substance. She most often used lard as the hardening agent, but other times she used beeswax. When she used lard, I could always tell if a person had been treated with her medicine, because it really did have a greasy, nasty smell. Most of the time I got myself into trouble simply by mentioning it; I was too young to understand that folks didn't always like to be told they smelled like lard.
Aunt Bett was the one who caught me in this little faux pas, when I went with her to the small grocery store up the road past her house. It was a warm day, and the young woman who had the store near her house was sweating profusely. She kept wiping her face with a greasy rag; it seemed as if grease was just dripping from her very curly red hair. "Oh Betty Ann," she said, "I was just thinkin' bout you."
"Nell," said Aunt Bett, "you're gonna lose that pretty red hair of yours, if you don't quit gettin' them home permanents. Ain't a thing they're gonna do 'cept cause your scalp to burn real bad. Ain't you never gonna learn?"
"Yeah, Nell," I piped up, "an' you sure do smell bad, too."
Aunt Bett walked me out of there faster than you could say spit, and I got the lecture of my life about how Nell had used Aunt Bett's salve on her perm irritated scalp. I was told it was the heat of her body that was making the salve melt, and that poor Nell didn't have any control over that. I thought for sure that I would never again be allowed to help Aunt Bett gather plants and boil them into something that people needed, but all I got was a lesson in social behavior. I learned if I could not say something good about someone, I should say nothing at all.
Working with plants was Aunt Bett's calling in life. She had followed in the footsteps of her Cherokee ancestors, using plants for their medicinal value. Sometimes I think teaching me how to behave was also her calling. That calling probably was much more difficult than making salves. When we are ancestors to those who come after us, I hope we have taught them well.
Photos are from Plant Files, thanks to these photographers: mygardens for the lovely thumbnail showing chelone over water, Emaewest for the blooms and foliage in the second photo and Equilibrium for the last photo of chelone in a garden setting.
The medicinal uses of the plant were included in my family writings and also verified in these sources: http://2bnthewild.com/plants/H394.htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/chelone_(Greek_mythology)
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 9, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but pelase be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)