Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Holy Smokes, It's Pipevine!

Native pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa) is a favorite plant of mine. So far, I’ve planted it in two locations in my yard—on the tin-roofed shelter that I call the Vine House, and on the little wire fence that encloses our vegetable garden. It looks so pretty twining about the heads and shoulders of the goddesses and mermaids around the Vine House, making veils and fans and capes for them, and it's formed a solid curtain behind the rosemary and Matt's Wild Cherry tomatoes in the garden. I like it for its heart-shaped leaves.

I like it too because it hosts the pipevine swallowtail, a beautiful blue and black butterfly whose coloration is mimicked by several other butterflies, including the more familiar black swallowtail. Why is the pipevine swallowtail's look so popular? Because the pipevine swallowtail is poisonous—and the mimics want the birds to think they’re poisonous too.

The pipevine swallowtail is poisonous thanks to all the poisonous pipevine leaves it eats as a caterpillar. Right now my pipevines are loaded with caterpillars, and they're eating non-stop. The caterpillars are very “striking” (as Rob says)—black and rubbery-looking, with rows of dark red knobs down their backs. They’re very active little animals. When I was trying to take their picture yesterday, they were constantly moving—munching madly, and twitching their antennae.

Pipevine is the only food pipevine swallowtail caterpillars will eat.

In spring and summer, pipevine leaves are a pretty apple green. They turn yellow in fall. Hidden under the lush leaves in spring are small yellow-green fuzzy flowers that really do look like pipes, albeit fanciful ones. I wish we had had pipevines in our yard when my sisters and I were children because I'm sure they would have come in handy in our imagination games; certain teddy bears would definitely have taken up smoking.

I've heard that native pipevines are generally hard to find in the nurseries. Luckily, that's just not true around here. We have a great nursery in Tallahassee, Native Nurseries, that specializes in native plants, and it always has pipevines in stock.

Both of my pipevines are planted in part shade, one in rich, moist soil and the other in poorer, drier soil. They're both thriving, though it took them a few years to really get going. The butterflies found them pretty quickly, laying tiny, red, bead-like eggs, and now I can brag that I've got two very productive butterfly factories.

Pipevine and peas growing together in spring


  1. Neat post, Leslie. I really enjoy your writing--it's so descriptive!

  2. Great description and photos of the Pinevine. I've been getting a...Lime Tree Caterpiller (I've blogged a couple times about it) could be called something else, UF Extension Service tried to identify it. Only eats my citrus trees. Have you encountered those?

  3. Thanks, Melissa! We get giant swallowtail caterpillars on our citrus trees. They're white and brown and look a bit like little snakes . . .