California Pipevine (Aristolochia californica)

April 2019

If you are ever curious about unusual plants, California’s native version of the Pipevine (Aristolochia californica) could be of interest to you. With over 500 species worldwide, it can be found in diverse habitats on almost every continent (except in polar regions) where it can be an evergreen or a deciduous vine or even an herbaceous perennial. The California pipevine is a deciduous vine common along Putah Creek at elevations below 1,500 feet.

Pipevines have some of the world’s most unusual flowers that have earned it many vernacular names like Birthwort for its shape resembling a birth canal, and other terms like Brazil’s Pelican Flower, Moth-winged Birthwort, or Chilean Fox Ears. The bizarre flower has shaped not only its names but its human relationships with many different cultures. Although there is strong evidence that its medicinal uses can be lethally damaging to the kidneys for some species, Aristolochia has been used by many cultures for a variety of needs spanning childbirth to weight-loss. Regionally, the Miwok tribe used this plant as a cold remedy.

The flowers of the California pipevine have an odd odor which is attractive to tiny gnats and flies. The plant is not insectivorous as was once thought. It is presumed that pollination occurs by deceit and that for our species, fungus gnats (Mycetophilidae) may be the most effective pollinators. Guided by stiff hairs, the insects are directed into the convoluted flowers, picking up pollen as they seek a way to exit. Eventually the flower hairs relax and the pollen-covered gnats are able to escape and spread pollen to other plants.

As a garden vine its heart-shaped leaves are quite decorative and its unusual flowers create a fascinating addition to the garden and also attracts wildlife. It is the host plant for one of our biggest butterflies, the pipevine swallowtail butterfly (Battus philenor), whose caterpillars eat its toxic leaves that help protect both larvae and adults from predators. When seed pods mature, their openings have been known to attract yellowjackets; placement of this plant should take this into account. The vines spread vegetatively via rhizomes, or underground stems, and vines can reach a length of over twenty feet and can become quite thick in circumference at maturity. In the wild it will spread out over open ground or sprawl over other plants. It is shade tolerant and does prefer regular watering but it can tolerate dry spells.

Photo credit: California Pipevine (Aristolochia californica) Putah Creek Council