By Vanessa Crews
California pipevine (Aristolochia californica) won a Freeman Medal Honorable Mention in 2017 for the Orinda Garden Club.
This perennial woody vine flowers in the early California spring. The numerous showy blossoms provide landscape interest in January and February, especially when twining up a trellis or deciduous shrub. The unique flowers resemble the shape of a curved Dutchman’s smoking pipe, hence the common name. As a native plant, California pipevine requires only light summer watering, making it particularly desirable in areas with little or seasonal rainfall. It can tolerate almost any soil and is very low maintenance.
California pipevine is the exclusive food source for the larvae of the Pipevine swallowtail butterfly, Battus philemon hirsuta. The red-spotted black caterpillar transforms into a beautiful dark butterfly. The female is chocolate brown; the male almost black with a blue-green sheen on the hind wings. This butterfly is completely dependent on the host plant, California pipevine, for survival. Urban encroachment has greatly diminished available habitat for the Pipevine swallowtail butterfly.
Julia Burke of the Piedmont Garden Club has laid the groundwork for our most recent joint P4P project, which was approved last year. With the help of East Bay Regional Parks botanist, Michele Hammond, a small group of volunteers planted pipevine plants in three different locations within the park — Sibley, Huckleberry and at the Alvarado entrance to Wildcat Canyon. They will be monitoring the different locations to see how the plants do. It takes a few years for the plants to be established. If all goes well, they will plant more next year and propose it for a new P4P project.
Planting California pipevine plants in our Orinda gardens can lead to butterfly visits and increased butterfly populations. Mature plants need very little care and will thrive almost anywhere. The vine will do little for the first couple of years, but with regular water and climbing support, your patience will be rewarded with a thriving vine and possible butterfly habitat.
Plants are available for purchase at the UC Botanical Garden shop. Your Orinda garden could be home to the beautiful Pipevine swallowtail butterfly.