This vine is native to Central and Northern California woodlands. The flowers it produces, could have been designed by a whimsical Dr. Seuss. It is called a California Dutchman’s Pipevine (aristolochia californica). You guessed it, the odd looking purple striped flowers on it look like a Dutch smoking pipe. It is also the only food source for the larva of the rare California Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly. The vine is extremely showy January through April and can be found growing wild along the ground near rivers and creeks in our area. It is always looking for something to climb on. Because of its large, lustrous, heart shaped green leaves, unusual flowers and great habitat value, it is one of the most popular native vines. This deciduous twining plant is adaptable to home gardens and is great if you have a trellis or fence in need of greenery. It requires a little shade and moderate water.
The flowers have a sneaky strategy for reproduction. A musky odor attracts fungus gnats into the flowers throat. Little hairs prevent the gnats from leaving - like metal spikes in a parking lot. They stay inside the flower for three or four days and become covered with pollen. Once the flowers get fertilized and shrivel up and die, the pollen covered insect escapes to the next flower.
While the flowers take on the hard job of ensnaring bugs, the plant leaves and vines host the more elegant swallowtail butterfly, which depends completely on the pipevine plant for reproduction. The females lay eggs on them, the eggs hatch into caterpillars that then gorge on the leaves. Sort of a bed and breakfast for this insect. The plant produces a toxin that when eaten by the caterpillar, makes them and the butterflies they produce, unattractive to predators.
If you want to plant this vigorous, native plant in your garden, you must have a bit of shade. They are not invasive, but the plants tend to become bushy and rambling and could reach a height of 20 to 30 feet. They do respond well to pruning. They are quite useful as a foliage plant, such as obscuring a chain link fence and if you have a love for butterflies it is another reason to invest in it because it is the only host plant for the California Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly.
Are you curious to see the fascinating pipevine? When it is not flowering you can easily miss it, as it blends in with surrounding greenery. If you go exploring, it can be found alongside the river and creeks and around oak trees. You might inadvertently step on it or you could also spot it wound around tree branches. Look for its heart shaped leaves.
Be aware that the pipevine is slow to establish. The old saying is “The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps and the third year it leaps”. Good luck.
A personal observation: Have you noticed that the new leaves of the giant Sycamore trees in our area have turned brown and are falling off this spring. There are many reasons to cause this, but one could be the drought. Normal rain for the season is about 22 inches, so far we have only received about 10 inches. Hopefully the sycamores will be putting out new leaves soon.
During normal times, before the virus shutdown, Red Bluff Garden Club meets the last Tuesday of the month at the Methodist Church, 525 David Ave., Red Bluff, visitors are welcome.
The Red Bluff Garden Club is affiliated with the Cascade District Garden Club; California Garden Clubs, Inc; Pacific Region Garden Clubs and Natural Garden Clubs Inc.