My Parting Kiss with Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’

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Every autumn, I take the time to write a plant review of the plants I enjoyed the most (and why), along with plants which disappointed me for whatever reason.  This season, Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’ is ranked number 1 on my perennials’ list.

Bee Attractor

First Prize Winner

Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’, common name: ‘Hot Lips’ Turtlehead, or pink turtlehead, is a perennial hardy in zones 4-7 with many desirable features and little problems.  It appreciates partial shade to full sun, is deer resistant, and a U.S. Native, but these were not the best of its attributes in my opinion.  My first attraction to it was its lustrous deep green to blue-green leaves, spotted on a stock at a wholesale yard this summer.

Love at First Sight

The moment I spotted the leaves on this plant and saw the tag’s photo of the flowers, it was love at first sight.  I was glad to see this perennial grows two to three feet in height with a spread of eighteen to twenty-four inches.  I wanted plants that grow big for showy container garden designs.  The plants were very healthy with fresh foliage and showing no signs of stress.  So off a few ‘Hot Lips’ plants went to my holding area along with other perennials and some shrubs.  Little did I know, this plant’s additional features would soon lead to a romance of admiration.

Pink Turtlehead

Serrated Blue-Green Leaves

Tags and references for this perennial will say the plant has deep green leaves, but take a look at my photo.  In my opinion, the leaves lean towards a “blue-green” coloring, combining very well with pastel or muted softer tones.  If you were to pull every color from this plant, you would also see some white and soft yellow (when you look closely at its bearded tongue down the throat of the flowers), softer pastel pinks, and deep raspberry like pink on edges of the flower’s hood, as well as some avocado green to the leaves.  It is important to pay attention to all the colors on a plant, some which may go unnoticed until you work with them by selecting companion plants to repeat or echo a color from the focal plant.  For example, I used a Cordyline with soft pink, yellow, and green streaking to repeat the hues in this perennial.  The blue-green leaves of ‘Hot Lips’ are also serrated and thick, offering a bit of texture, and the leaves of the Cordyline are big and coarse.  This helps to create texture comparisons in the design.  To soften the edge of the pot, I tucked in an ornamental grass with a bronzy color which worked well with the color of my container.

Curious Long Lasting Flowers

By early summer, this plant grew from a one gallon pot size to about two feet tall with a nice upright mound shape.  Soon the flower buds started to appear and plump up.  I was anxious to see the flowers open because they have an unusual structure, think “Little Shops of Horrors” plant character.  Tightly clustered on a raceme styled inflorescence, the flower buds open to reveal a hooded form with a bearded tongue within.  The continual elongation of the raceme made me consider if this is where the common name came from because it reminded me of a turtle elongating his head from its shell.  But I’ve read it is actually the flower when open that resembles a turtle’s head.  Either way, the flower is kind of cool and very pretty due to the intense hot pink colors.  And lucky me, they were abundant on this plant in my container from August to September, even into early October.

Turtlehead buds

Bee Attractor

In addition to the flower structure itself being of interest, its nectar and pollen offerings completely enticed bees during its long bloom period from late summer to fall. First to visit were bumblebees, followed by honeybees later in the season.  Many bees were diving into the hooded flowers, squirming and wiggling head first to reach the bounty within.  The flowers’ openings were just large enough to allow entrance with no turn zone available, so they would come out, in reverse, butt end first.  A loud buzzin’ sound amplified as the bee entered and exited.  It was a rather amusing buzz symphony, even my husband started to take notice.  I guess bees do not suffer from the fear of claustrophobia for it was a tight fit.  Now our temps have cooled, almost reaching our first frost point, the bees have silently dissipated.  Their love affair with ‘Hot Lips’ is over.

Butterfly Hummingbird Teaser

One afternoon, when I was admiring the bees up-close and taking photos, a hummingbird swooped near my head and swooshed by the plant’s top.  He was checking me and the flowers out on this now very large ‘Hot Lips’ turtlehead perennial plant.  So large now, it was the size of a small shrub.  So I decided to sit quietly on the ground and wait patiently to see if the hummingbird would return.  He did.  But of course, getting a photo was impossible due to their warp speed.  While this plant teased the hummingbird viewer, I personally never saw the hummingbird sipping from it, but it is certainly a candidate to add to the hummingbird or bee lover’s garden bed, with one catch.  It needs moist soils to perform well, and the right amount of space due to its larger size.  In gardens, it is best used mid section, but in container gardens you can place them wherever you want in a large container.  For me, containers worked well because of observation opportunities.

Bee backing up-See black end?

Consistently Moist Soils

At the time, I didn’t really pay attention to the fact that this perennial is best in moist soils.  Because it was heading to one of my large container gardens, it wasn’t a big concern.  And I like to water my container gardens, so I didn’t think about any issues there.  However, if you plan to use this perennial in a garden, it is best to situated it in an area with moisture for this is what it will thrive in.  And of course, to select companion plants that also appreciate moisture.  I could see a variegated Iris, with “blue-green” and “soft yellow” foliage color, working well.  It has the right coloring to harmonize with ‘Hot Lips’ and likes to sit in standing water, plus it has a spiky form and grows to a fairly big size of about thirty-six inches tall, so it would not get buried by ‘Hot Lips’ and would work well placed in front of it.   To add some drama, one may want to add an elephant ear, such as Colocasia esculenta ‘Maui Magic’ for the dark purple-black tones provide a great contrast.  Also enjoying part-shade and moisture.  While I’m at it, how about the ultra tall Filipendula spp., meadowsweet, with finer-wispy soft or deep pink flowers?  These all would work together in the moist garden bed, or in a big container garden.

Parting with ‘Hot Lips’

Saying goodbye to this perennial is difficult to do, but it will be transplanted and enjoyed next season. Yet to witness are its seedheads, attractive and offering one last moment of pleasure.  Next spring, it will be pruned and admired once again.  The bees will return, and all will be hummin’ along.  However, now, it is time to say goodbye to those hot lips with a parting kiss – well, you know what I mean…Saying goodbye to plants feels like a break-up.  Okay, I said it.  And breaking up is hard to do… Cathy T

The Parting Kiss
Poem 1788
by Robert Burns

Humid seal of soft affections,
Tenderest pledge of future bliss,
Dearest tie of young connections,
Love’s first snowdrop, virgin kiss!

Speaking silence, dumb confession,
Passion’s birth, and infant’s play,
Dove-like fondness, chaste concession,
Glowing dawn of future day!

Sorrowing joy, Adieu’s last action,
(Lingering lips must now disjoin),
What words can ever speak affection
So thrilling and sincere as thine!


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