The Dutchman’s pipe belongs to the plant genus Aristolochia, which has over 500 species. They are named for the quirky shape of the flowers which are for all the world like the old-fashioned Dutchman’s meerschaum pipe. The Aristolochia genus includes evergreen and deciduous woody vines and herbaceous perennials.
The Dutchman’s pipe vine is an exotic vine not native to Australia. However conditions in some parts of the country have seen the plant become a declared weed. It is a vigorous vine which originated in South America. Ideal conditions for its propagation are protected positions of high humidity and plenty of light.
It is easily recognised by the unusual pipe-like shape of the flower. The outside of the flower is purple with white veins but the inside, which is much more visible, is a rich purple-brown with white markings and a white throat. It is a slender woody climber with broad, heart-shaped leaves. As it climbs, the stems twine in tight coils around its supports.
The leaves can grow to 12cm long and appear alternately along the stem. The underneath of the leaf is a pale, grey-green with a waxy lustre and they grow close together forming a dense mat. The stems of older vines develop a spongy cork-type bark.
Once fertilised, the flower becomes a papery capsule which opens like an upside-down umbrella. The capsule is about 6 cm long and is divided into segments. It contains 350 odd tear-shaped seeds which are light and papery. They are spread by wind or, if the plant is growing near a waterway, by water.
The vine is vigorous and heavy and supports should be strong and sturdy. It makes a good plant for shade and screening and the flowers draw much attention.
In Australia, the dutchman’s pipe has been promoted as a popular novelty, easily cultivated and unusual. However, with its preference for moist, fertile soils, it has ‘escaped’ from domestic gardens and it now invades rainforest areas.
Apart from becoming naturalised and competing with local native species, it is also responsible for the death of the larvae of the rare Richmond birdwing butterfly. The plant is similar to the native vines Pararistolochia praevenosa (formerly Aristolochia praevenosa) and Aristolochia acuminate (formerly Aristolochia tagala) which are natural food sources for the Richmond birdwing and a number of other Australian butterflies.
Female butterflies are attracted to the foliage of the dutchman’s pipe and lay their eggs on the leaves. The larvae hatch and immediately begin to consume the leaves, resulting in the death of the larvae from toxins contained therein.
In other countries where conditions are conducive to its development, the dutchman’s pipe has also spread beyond its intended boundaries.