Box Turtle Season is Upon Us

Posted by & filed under Garden News, Natural Areas, Tom Houser Blog.

By Tom Houser, Norfolk Botanical Garden Senior HorticulturistIMG_2250

I don’t know of many people who don’t get a kick out of seeing a box turtle, and Norfolk Botanical Garden is an oasis for these vulnerable creatures.  We have everything a turtle could want – natural areas filled with food to eat, places to wander and hibernate, and other turtles to mate with.

We’ve had several sightings in the last week – they are definitely out and on the move.  I’ve seen two in Enchanted Forest – one was a male and the other female, so hopefully they’ll find each other and have a little garden romance. Several other staff members have seen them in several places throughout the garden. The particular species we see in our area is Terrapene carolina. It has a pretty wide range, all the way up to Maine and down the east coast, then west through Kansas and Oklahoma.  Sadly, in several states they are now listed as threatened species. Its population has been dwindling for quite a few years now, mainly due to loss of habitat and their propensity for crossing busy roads at the wrong time. Speaking of which – if you ever stop to assist a turtle that’s in the road, make sure to take it to the side of the road that it was heading towards. They usually have a purpose for heading in a particular direction, and if you put them on the side of the road that they were starting from, they’ll probably just head back into the road.

Sexing a box turtle is quite simple. Males tend to have reddish eyes, females have brown.  The males have a large concave “dent” on the bottom of his shell.  Any ideas on what that dent might be useful for? I’ll just say it has to do with the possible romance I mentioned earlier and see if you can figure out the rest. One more interesting tidbit on the box turtle, It has an interesting relationship with one of my favorite native plants, the may apple (Podophyllum peltatum).  If you didn’t know, the fruit of may apples are located underneath the leaves – just within reach of a hungry box turtle. The seed of a may apple is extremely hard, and they don’t germinate readily. Unless, that is, they have passed through the digestive tract of a box turtle.  A seed that is passed through a box turtle is 4 to 5 times more likely to germinate – box turtles are the #1 vector of the seed of this classic spring ephemeral.

          So when you’re walking through the garden and see one of our turtles…. Thank them for a job well done!


Caption #1   The good thing about taking pictures of turtles is that they don’t move very fast – which gave me time to go back to the office and get my camera!


Caption #2 (Closeup)  This is a male, which I could tell by the reddish colored eyes.  Box turtles have unique colors and patterns – this one had a particularly striking pattern on the top of his head.