When my wife and I added a new trellis to our old side porch, we knew the perfect vine to plant there. Facing northwest, the porch is shaded by the house until it gets the full afternoon sun, just the place to plant a Dutchman’s pipe, also called pipevine. Now, three years later, our trellis is covered with the broad, heart-shaped leaves and intertwining green stems. And hidden in the maze of green were a few of its bizarre flowers, which have no petals and resemble an old-fashioned, curved tobacco pipe.
A Step Back In Time
Dutchman’s pipe used to be a popular porch vine in the days before air conditioning. It covers any kind of trellis with broad leaves that overlap each other. This creates a haven of shade from the summer sun, cooling the house and turning a sunny front porch into a pleasant place to sit on warm summer evenings. Modern air conditioning, tastes in architecture, and changing ways of living have made outside porch-sitting an outdated American custom. Remembering my own childhood visits to grandparents and relatives, I grow nostalgic for porch visits on warm summer evenings. Most family gatherings and summertime parties now happen on decks, patios or around fire pits.
What’s In A Name
Pipevine belongs to the Birthwort family of plants. “Wort” is an Old English suffix for plant, and “Birth” harkens back to ancient herbalists, who followed the doctrine that a plant would help the human body part that its root, leaf, stem or flower most resembled. To them this plant’s flower looked much like a human uterus, so they believed it must help with childbirth.
Aristolochia, pipevine’s generic name, has two origin stories. The ancient Greek “father of botany,” Theophrastes, coined the name from two words meaning “ideal” and “child bed” referencing its supposed medicinal value. Cicero, the Roman orator, mentions Aristolochos, a man who dreamed that the plant was an antidote for snakebite. This may explain a belief among some folks that the plant will repel snakes.
But don’t take all your medical advice from ancient history. Be aware, if you have pets or small children, all parts of the plant contain toxic aristolochic acid that, if swallowed, may cause irreversible kidney failure and cancer of the bladder or urinary tract.
Pipevine is native to the woodland ravines in the Potomac and Shenandoah valleys. It isn’t picky about types of soil and scrambles up any available place. Flying insects are attracted to the deep-throated flowers which produce an unpleasant smell. A few dark, “nectar guide” stripes, similar to those on violets and irises, appear on the front opening of the flower. Such stripes supposedly guide insects toward the inside.
Pipevine flowers don’t offer sweet nectar. Instead, they play a dirty trick to get small insects to pollinate them. Lured by the flower’s scent, a little insect crawls over the spiky hairs along the flower’s throat. But it’s a trap. Those inward-pointing hairs keep the insect from escaping until it becomes covered with pollen. By then the hairs have withered and the insect climbs back out.
When our pipevine started to bloom this year, I learned something new. The pipevine native to our area is Aristolochia macrophylla (large-leaved pipevine). Its flower opens into three hairless, rounded lobes. The pipevine we planted is a different species, A. rugosa (hairy pipevine). Its flower is covered with short hairs, and its lobes are more pointed. The hairy species has a more southerly natural range.
The pipevine has started to show up again at nurseries and on websites that encourage planting native plants in gardens. I hope this continues.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer