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Variegated Pipevine Shines in the Shade

Pipevine aka Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla) is a fast-growing, deciduous vine. A. macropohylla grows in zones 5-8 and has heart-shaped, slightly fuzzy leaves that are dark green above and pale gray underneath. We are lucky to live in zone 8 and so we can grow the beautiful Brazilian Variegated Pipevine (Asclepias currassavica), which is the variety that really shines in the shade garden. The leaves are rounder and dark green, with white margins and veins. All Pipevine varieties prefer a part shade location (or morning sun with afternoon protection).

The vine climbs 10-15 feet (but can reach 25 feet under ideal conditions) by twining its stems around a support, but my favorite way to grow it is to allow is to scramble along the ground and create a lovely groundcover.

The blooms resemble small pipes (hence the common name Dutchman’s Pipe) and are mottled green, brown and burgundy with yellow tubes (more curious than beautiful). Capsules that resemble tiny cucumbers appear after the flowers; they stay green most of the summer and then ripen to gray in fall.

You can sometimes find plants at specialty nurseries, but your best bet is to beg seeds from a friend (my vines sprouted from seeds gifted to me from Judy Ewoldsen and Joanne Pospisil), or order from a seed catalogue. Pipevine can be propagated by cutting off rooted shoots at the base of the plant in the spring. Some gardeners have had success rooting 2-3” stem tips in water.

When the seed capsules have dried on the vine, remove them and empty out the seeds. The seeds need to be cold stratified before they will germinate. This can be accomplished by placing the seeds in a plastic bag with moist sand and storing the bag in the freezer for 8-10 weeks. I prefer to sow seeds in the fall and allow the winter weather to do the job for me. According to Joanne Pospisil the best way to sow Pipevine seeds is to place seeds in your open palm and get close to the ground. Gently blow on the seeds and they will be distributed the way Mother Nature would have.

If you grow Pipevine for no other reason, grow it for the butterflies. The Pipevine Swallowtail uses Pipevine as its host plant. The mature butterfly lays its eggs on the leaves of the plant and when the caterpillars emerge they eat the leaves; they will not eat leaves from any other type of plant. The caterpillars are quite ferocious looking with their velvety, maroon bodies and orange bumps. Many gardeners mistakenly kill them thinking they are bad bugs. Unlike most butterfly caterpillars, Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars move in packs and can quickly devour new growth on the plant, almost completely defoliating it. But I’m happy to feed them because I know they will evolve into beautiful butterflies. Pipevine leaves contain a poisonous substance, aristolochic acid, which is a renal toxin to most insects, but the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars are immune to it. Several other species of swallowtails mimic the coloration of the Pipevine Swallowtail to protect themselves from predators.

One word of caution: avoid the tropical Pipevines (A. elegans, A. clittoralis and A. grandiflora). While they have large, showy flowers, they are toxic to Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars.

Caring for Pipevine is easy. Apply a balanced fertilizer in spring and provide supplemental water when rain isn’t in the forecast. Prune the vines as needed to keep the plant under control; pinching back the growing tips will produce bushier plants. Leaves grow on old wood, so don’t prune back in the fall. Pipevine will often stay evergreen through the winter, but if it defoliates from a hard freeze, don’t worry, when spring arrives and temperatures warm up, the plant will leaf out again.

I hope that you will consider growing this lovely plant. Not only will it make your shady spots shine, but your garden will be graced with beautiful Swallowtail butterflies.

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