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Today I’m writing about a plant that’s fairly common in the Tucson area, the Pipevine. In these parts it’s probably best known as a host plant for the larva (caterpillar) of the extraordinarily beautiful Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly. But, in fact, it has a history that is truly intriguing.
Our local pipevines are members of a genus containing hundreds of similar plants with virtually a worldwide distribution known as Aristolochia. Historically, the plant has had a variety of names including “birthwort”, allegedly because its flower resembles a woman’s birth canal. Others say that it got the name “birthwort” from its use as a medicine to help in childbirth. Either way, the flower of this plant is certainly unusual in appearance. Oddly beautiful, I’d say.
The flower emits a scent that is attractive to insects. An insect that follows the scent descends into the pitcher-shaped part of the flower, where it becomes covered with pollen. Upon exiting the plant the insect brushes up against this flower’s or other flowers’ female sex organs, thereby fertilizing the plant and allowing for the production of seeds.
Historically, pipevine has been attributed with medicinal qualities. It has not only been used in aiding childbirth but has been touted as an antidote for snake venom. But, here’s the rub: the pipeline plant produces a chemical called aristolochic acid that, if consumed in sufficient quantity, can cause severe and irreversible damage to the kidneys. It is also a powerful carcinogen. So, ironically, one person’s medicine is another’s poison.
Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180 f3.5L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite and supported by monopod, M setting, ISO 160, f13 @ 1/160.