Why You Should Grow Dutchman's Pipe Vines

Pipevine a Great Butterfly Plant That Gives Shade, Hides Eyesores

What the leaves of Dutchman's pipe vine look like.
David Beaulieu

The flower of Dutchman's pipe vine is shaped like a meerschaum pipe, giving the vine its common name (it was a pipe popular in Holland). But do not let the novelty of the flower's form be the deciding factor in selling you on this plant: The dense foliage often hides the flowers. You can, however, put that dense foliage to good use, too.

Botanical Name and Plant Type

While everyday gardeners may refer to this plant by the common names of "Dutchman's pipe" or "pipevine," in terms of plant taxonomy, it's called Aristolochia macrophylla. An alternate botanical name is Aristolochia durior.

Dutchman's pipe is a woody, deciduous vine. If you have ever noticed a resemblance between the leaves of this plant and those of wild ginger (Asarum canadense), there's a good reason for that: They're both in the birthwort family.

Description of Dutchman's Pipe Vines, Zones, Native Origin

Aristolochia macrophylla is a climbing vine. This vigorous grower reaches a height of 20 feet to 30 feet tall. Under ideal conditions, the growth rate is quite fast.

The plant blooms in June in zone 5. But its foliage is the plant's best feature. The leaves are heart-shaped and large. The coarse texture thus provided is useful for contrast with more delicate leaves.

Native to eastern North America, Aristolochia macrophylla will likely perform best in growing zones 4 to 8. There are a variety of other types of Aristolochia, including A. tomentosa, which is also an American native (but indigenous across a more southerly range) and a similar-looking plant. You can tell it from A. macrophylla by inspecting its flowers, foliage, and newest stems, all of which have tiny hairs on them (tomentosa means "hairy").

Growing Conditions, Location

Plant it in full sun to partial shade (but flowering may be better in full sun) and in soil with good drainage. Keep the ground evenly moist during the growing season. Work compost into the soil to promote fertility.

Considering the size and vigor of this vine, it's important to plant it where it will have plenty of room to grow. This isn't the kind of plant that you shoehorn into a tight spot or install next to smaller plants, which may well struggle to compete with it.

Plant Care

Dutchman's pipe climbs by the twining method. Most growers furnish a support for it, so that the vine will twine around something of their choosing. It will also be prudent on your part to train the vine as it climbs, so that you have more control over where it grows.

Moreover, if you wish to maintain a tidy display, you may have to prune a mature Dutchman's pipe with some regularity. Pruning is best done in late winter or early spring. Being vigorous (once established), it responds well to pruning, so don't be afraid to trim it.

As long as you cut off no more than one-fourth of the plant at any one time, you should be all right. Another general pruning rule with trees, shrubs, and perennial vines is to prune off no more than one-third of a plant's growth in the course of the entire year. To prune this perennial vine, look for the weakest branches and any branches that seem to be getting out of hand, and prune those off.

Uses in Landscaping

Classified as one of the flowering vines, Dutchman's pipe is, nevertheless, more useful as a foliage plant. Its leaves fill in densely, suggesting a number of potential uses, most notably as:

  • Plants that cast shade to keep an area cooler during the summer
  • Plants that screen out prying eyes from areas where you want privacy
  • Plants that hide eyesores in your landscaping

For example, we frequently see Dutchman's pipe vines growing up the front of a porch on older homes, in which role they cast welcome shade during summer's scorching reign (while simultaneously furnishing some privacy). If you do not have a porch but desire an outdoor living space of some sort where you can relax on a hot day, drink in hand, then consider erecting a pergola or large garden arbor and train the vines so that they grow up and over it.

The density of its foliage also makes Dutchman's pipe vine effective in hiding eyesores. For example, perhaps you have chain-link fencing and feel (as many do) that it provides a horrible background for a particular planting bed during the summer. By training Dutchman's pipe along it, you could obscure the fencing and procure a nice green backdrop for enhanced viewing of the bed.

Dutchman's pipe vines can also be important host plants for butterflies. According to the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), "Pipevine is the primary food for Pipevine Swallowtail." The butterflies are not drawn to the plant simply because they like the taste. According to NABA, "Scientists have determined that pipevine plants contain chemicals that when ingested by the caterpillars make them poisonous." As a result, would-be predators avoid eating the caterpillars.

More generally, the vine is a good candidate for woodland gardens, since it can stand a bit of shade.

Giant Pelican Flowers Showy, but Bad for Butterflies

There is good news and bad news for you North American gardeners about a related plant, the Brazilian Dutchman’s pipe or "giant pelican flower" (Aristolochia gigantea), in case you're thinking of growing it as an annual in your summertime gardens:

  • The good news is that its foul-smelling flowers are enormous (12 inches high and 6 inches across).
  • The bad news is that it's harmful to North American butterflies.

A. gigantea is a tropical plant (zones 10 to 12). Pipevine swallowtails in North America do recognize it as a relative of Aristolochia macrophylla and will lay eggs on the foliage, but, in so doing, they sign the death warrant for their offspring. This is because the leaves are poisonous to them. Once the caterpillars hatch and eat the leaves, they die soonafter.

North Americans should grow only the Dutchman's pipe vines native to North America if they are seeking plants for butterfly gardens.