Keys Homes
Sunday, September 8, 2013
Dutchman's pipe hides its bizarre flower under its leaves

By ROBIN ROBINSON The Key West Garden Club

The flowers on Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla) are five inches long and look like a bizarre version of a meerschaum pipe. The bloom has a large greenish pipe bowl surrounded by a five-inch three-lobed calyx with purple spots. It is also called birthwort in reference to the flower's shape that resembles a birth canal. Despite the outsized and far-fetched flower they are often inconspicuous, usually hiding under their mother's leafy skirts.

They do not attract butterflies, but entice flies into their bowels with a stench like carrion. The fly slides down the hairy interior and collects pollen. Then the plant's hairs drop off and the lucky fly can climb out carrying life-continuing pollen. Fortunately, this plant is not carnivorous.

I photographed the erotic birthwort on White Street near Robin and Carol Lazar's side fence. Robin, recently arrived from South Africa, quipped, "For a prudish local like Key West this is a nicely prurient bloom."

Cicero claimed in On Divination that the plant was named after a Greek man, Aristolochos, who learned in a dream that it was an antidote for snakebites.

Aristolochia is a large plant genus with over 500 species. The name was derived from the Greek word aristos, which means best and locheia, which means childbirth. In ancient China the plant was used for medicinal purposes for acute arthritis, edema and in birth to expel the placenta. However, modern medicine has found it to be carcinogenic and a kidney toxin. "First do no harm," in the doctor's code of ethics, might not have been observed by the ancient practioners. The plant apparently did more harm than good.

The famous naturalist John Bartram sent the hardy A. macrophylla to England in 1761 from seeds he collected in the Ohio River valley. The English loved it for its thick network of four-inch heart-shaped leaves that they used to cover arbors, trellises and porches. It is a twining climber with thick woody stems that can grow up to 30 feet in length with a spread of 20 feet.

The leaves host pipe vine swallowtail caterpillars. The black butterflies have iridescent blue back wings with orange spots. They lay 1-20 eggs on the underside of the leaves. The young poisonous caterpillars are gregarious when first hatched, but become loners as they age. The caterpillars are black with orange polka dots. Two fleshy horns and a host of filaments cover their bodies. They become poisonous after imbibing the leaves, and fortunately for them, not a tasty treat for predators.

Dutchman's pipe has no serious insect infestations or diseases. It does like humus-filled ground and damp roots flourishing across the country near rivers and drainage ditches in both shade and sun. However it can survive a short drought. Native to the Eastern U.S., it thrives as far north as Zone 4.

Cuttings are the easiest way to propagate the vine, but it sprouts from seed as well. Seeds are found in cylindrical capsules three to four inches long that stay green most of the summer, eventually turning black.

No one smokes a Dutchman' pipe, but many enjoy growing this bizarre and exotic bloom.

NOTES:

The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to work on the historical fort, pull weeds, propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays.

Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and Award-Winning "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on Amazon.com. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com.

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