The Pipevine Lifeline: The Vine Behind the Butterfly

by Jul 28, 2017News0 comments

The Pipevine Lifeline: The Vine Behind the Butterfly

By Krista Botting, Summer Field Biologist

We’re continuing our Pipevine Swallowtail Watch of 2017! The caterpillars are growing larger, and some of the bigger ones are beginning to disperse. But we wanted to turn our attention here to the vine behind the caterpillar.

The Pipevine Swallowtail’s host plant is the Pipevine. There are several species, but they’re generally understated. Only those with the largest, showiest flowers get much attention—like the Pelican Flower (Aristolochia grandiflora) which sports one of the world largest flowers and smells like rotting meat, and the Calico Flowers (A. littoralis, A. elegans) which show off some spectacular color. The two species of Dutchman’s Pipevine in our backyard (A. tomentosa, A. macrophylla) have neither large nor colorful flowers, yet they are just right for a new generation of butterflies.

Although they may not have been planted for showmanship, many of the Pipevines native to the East Coast still hold a place in gardens. Thanks to large, overlapping, heart-shaped leaves and a tendency to climb just about anything (but without destroying the surface, unlike Wisteria and other aggressive vines), Pipevines help provide both a natural screen from prying eyes and cool shade on hot days.

Before the advent of air conditioning, people spent much of their summer days outdoors with the open air and playful breezes. Any plant that could block out the sun’s rays while you sat on the porch would be most welcome. The idea caught on in England as well, when naturalist John Bartram collected some seeds and sent them to a friend in 1761. Pipevines were added to the commercial growing business advertised as “a canopy impenetrable to the rays of the sun or moderate rain” in The Botanical Magazine (1801).

Now that we have cooler houses, electricity and air conditioning, and plenty of other distractions indoors, Pipevine is not as prevalent as it once was, but you can still find it and its accompanying butterflies around older homes and native gardens. In 2014, the Staff here at Bedford Audubon first noticed Pipevine Swallowtail larvae on our oldest Dutchman’s Pipevine, growing up the post of the back porch at Bylane Farm. They planted another one that same year to encourage more Swallowtails. Now both plants are home to the caterpillars.

So, if you’re looking to help butterflies while providing the cool shade of leafy vine, consider planting Dutchman’s Pipevine. You might just get to witness your own miracle of new life.

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