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Featured Plant

Aristolochia californica


Scientific Name: Aristolochia californica

Common Name: California pipevine, California dutchman's pipe, snakeroot, birthwort

Family: Aristolochiaceae

Plant Type: Twining, woody vine; deciduous.

Environment: Shaded areas with some moisture in chaparral, mixed-evergreen forests, riparian (rivers and creeks) and central oak woodlands of northern and central California.

Bloom: Spring flowering.

Uses: Will grow as a scrambling ground cover or climb up trees. Prefers part-shade and regular water, but can become fairly drought tolerant with time. It is great for a butterfly garden, attracting the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, Battus philenor hirsuta.



Aristolochia californica

One of the miracles of nature occurs whenever a caterpillar transforms into a beautiful butterfly. The Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, once it emerges from its chrysalis, is a vision of iridescent shades of dark to light blue, culminating in a line of orange dots seen only when it folds its wings.

The large heart-shaped leaves of California Pipevine, on which its eggs are laid, are the sole source of food for the butterfly's larvae. The clusters of larvae consume the leaves which contain toxins that make the emerging caterpillars poisonous to predators. When the butterfly appears five or more days later, it too is safe from predators as it emits an offensive odor.

The Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly is found wherever its host plant grows, sipping nectar from wildflowers and getting its moisture from "puddling," absorbing water from shallow rain puddles, and even from droppings of manure where half a dozen swallowtails can be seen hovering at a time.

The whimsical flower of the California Pipevine looks very much like the pipe of Sherlock Holmes. Its fused sepals shaped into a small sac-like tube with veins of purple, appear at the terminal point of the woody twining stems and in the leaf axils. The blossom resembles a carnivorous plant, and has an odor that attracts carrion-feeding insects that crawl inside and are temporarily trapped, ensuring pollination.

The vine grows from an underground rhizome, and the twisting woody stems can become thick and extend twenty feet or more. After blooming, fresh leaves appear. The aromatic leaves, although deciduous, are easily recognizable in the forest in spring and summer for their heart shape. They are borne on stems that climb on anything within reach! In fall the fruits become dry capsules releasing winged seeds which are blown through the air on the wind.

Aristolochia californica is endemic to California and found in redwood forests and the coastal foothills. There are hundreds of other species of Aristolochia growing in the tropics from Panama to Brazil; some have pipes 6" long with stunning purple markings. They can become invasive in warmer climates and cover large areas. The large-leaf dutchman's pipe, A. macrophylla, grows in the southern Appalachian forests and can climb 100 feet into the great trees.

Text by Kathy McNeil. Photos by Joanne Taylor, Mona Bourell, Louise Hallberg and David Kruse-Pickler.


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