Be the first to introduce pipevine swallowtail butterflies to your neighborhood with this twining, high-climbing, woody vine. Native to central and southern US, Dutchman's pipevine is one of approximately 50 different species of pipevine. It grows rapidly to 20 or 30 feet long with showy, heart-shaped leaves and yellow blooms in mid to late spring that resemble miniature saxophones. In the fall, the plant produces grayish-brown, cylindrical capsules containing many seeds. It’s easily grown in moist, loamy, or sandy soils and prefers full or part sun. It has no serious disease or insect problems.
Also known as woolly pipevine and woolly birthwort, this vine is in the birthwort family. The genus name is a combination of two Greek words meaning “best” and “childbirth.” In ancient times, a European species of birthwort was used during the childbirthing process for pain or infections, partly because the flower shape was thought to resemble a birth canal or a fetus in the womb.
The flower’s shape also looks like the Meershaum smoking pipes made in Europe, giving the vine its most-used common name. Like the flowers of wild ginger, another birthwort species, pipevine’s flowers tend to be obscured by the dense, overlapping foliage. The flowers emit an odor (not perceivable to humans) that attracts flies and gnats. Pollination is a complex affair that involves small flies getting trapped overnight in the floral tube, where they become coated with pollen. The flower starts to wither, and the stiff hairs in the tube relax, allowing the insect to escape. None the wiser, the insect is attracted to another stinky flower and the pollination process continues.
The species name, tomentosa, is Latin for "covered with densely matted, woolly hairs." This refers to the woolly hairs on the leaves, blooms, and stems of the plant. The copious foliage creates an attractive privacy screen. Take care when siting the vine, because new plants come up from the roots, and the vines can spread across large areas. A site that is frequently mowed or kept in bounds by a wall or other barrier would be ideal. If the vines are left alone until spring, new leaves will emerge from them; however, some gardeners cut down the dead-looking vines in winter to help control the amount of growth.
All parts of this plant contain a toxin known as aristolochic acid. The larvae of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly has evolved to be able to consume the aristolochic acids, which are toxic to humans and most other wildlife. The caterpillars store the chemicals in their tissues to sicken and discourage predators. Butterflies such as spicebush swallowtail, which has a similar appearance to pipevine swallowtail, benefit from their relative’s poisonous reputation. Some non-native species of birthworts, such as calico flower vine, contain higher levels of the poisonous chemicals, making them toxic even to the pipevine swallowtail caterpillars.
Native habitats include bottomland and moist, upland forests; banks of streams and rivers; tree canopies; and open, disturbed areas. Great for butterfly and native gardens or as a climber on arbors, fences, posts, walls, or trees and other plants.
Grows 20-30’ feet tall and 5-10’ wide.
Prefers full sun to part shade.
Does best in moist, loamy or sandy soils with good drainage. Will not tolerate dry soil.
Cylindrical, yellowish flowers are 1-2” long and densely hairy. The flower tube is sharply curved and the outer sepals are fused together to make the calyx, which has 3 flaring, purple lobes and 6 stamens. Flowers bloom May-June, followed by dry, 6-sided capsules 3” long containing seeds stacked in vertical columns. Seeds are 3/8” long, flat, triangular, and grayish brown.
Alternate leaves are heart-shaped with blunt-to-rounded tips and covered with dense, matted “wool.” Leaves are 3-6” long and 2-4” wide. Leaf stalks are also hairy.
Stems are gray, brown, or black; downy when young; and smoother and grooved when older. Ends of the vine die back a few feet during winter. Wood is soft or pithy and light brown with grayish-brown bark that has narrow grooves or ridges. The bark often peels into strips.
Aristolochia is a host plant to larvae of pipevine swallowtail butterflies.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
The sap of plants in the birthwort genus is yellowish and tastes bitter. Bruised plant parts emit an unpleasant odor similar to that of turpentine. Some species have been studied for their chemical compounds’ abilities to fight cancer; however, these same compounds also have carcinogenic properties.
Caution: Ingestion of any part of this plant may cause irreversible kidney failure. Touching the plant does not cause contact dermatitis.
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