Aristolochia Gigantea : A Death Sentence for Pipevine Swallowtails

Is Your Pipevine Plant Swallowtail-safe?

There are many types of Aristolochia you can plant to entice pipevine swallowtails (Battus philenor) to host their caterpillar babies in your garden.

However, tropical pipevine plants are too toxic for pipevine swallowtails. Some gardeners choose the exotic tropical varieties for their showy flowers, but this can be counter-productive to a thriving butterfly garden.

Aritolochia gigantea is toxic to pipevine caterpillars
Strange, Beautiful, Deadly??
If you’re not sure whether pipevine swallowtails are fluttering around your region, check out this swallowtail sightings map

What’s unfortunate about Aristolochia gigantea (giant Dutchman’s pipe), is that pipevine butterflies will still lay eggs on it. The eggs will hatch, but many of the caterpillars won’t survive past their first instar due to high plant toxicity or refusal to eat the distasteful leaves.

So, if you’re interested in adding a pipevine host plant to your garden try one of these swallowtail-safe species instead.

Click on any of the bold orange links to buy seeds or plants:

Pipevine Swallowtail Host Plants

Aristolochia Gigantea is a Death Sentence for Pipevine Swallowtails. Try feeding them these non-toxic Native Varieties Instead.
Pipevine Caterpillar by Dan Haskovec

1. Aristolochia durior or macrophylla (big leaf pipevine) – native to the eastern US and recommended for USDA hardiness zones 4a-8b.

native region US: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia

native region Canada: Ontario, Quebec

2. Aristolochia tomentosa (woolly pipevine) – native to the southeastern and central US. Recommended for USDA hardiness zones 5-10.

native region US: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas

3. Aristolochia serpentaria (Virginia snakeroot) native to the eastern US and recommended for USDA hardiness zones 5a-8b. This species grows lower to the ground, earning its serpenty name.

native region US: Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia

4. Aristolochia californica (California pipevine) native to California. This climber also spreads like a ground cover. Recommended for USDA hardiness zones 8a-10b.)

5. Aristolochia fimbriata (white-veined Dutchman’s pipe) – a trailing plant with pretty foliage and easy to manage in the garden. USDA hardiness zones 7a-9b.)

Also a host plant for Polydamas (gold rim) swallowtails

6. Aristolochia trilobata (Dutchman’s Pipe) – unique colorful flowers, cold hardy to zone 10a.

Also a host plant for Polydomas (gold rim) swallowtails

7. Aristolochia clematitis (birthwort) – a rare, creeping vine with yellow flowers. Recommended for USDA hardiness zones 6b-9b.)

8. Aristolochia watsonii (desert pipevine)a low grower that could be an option for a hanging basket. Recommended for USDA hardiness zones above 9a.

Pipevine Swallowtail on Azalea Flower
Pipevine Swallowtail by Ken Bosma

These 8 aristolochia options should nourish your pipevine caterpillars all the way to butterhood. Please research specific plants to make sure they’re a viable option for your region. #1 and #2 are perennial options for much of North America. Others can be grown as annuals.

Check out 5 Climbing Plant Ideas for your Butterfly Garden

If you’re interested in providing host plants for a wide range of butterflies, check out this extensive host plant list from Houzz.

nature note: the Polydamas swallowtail (Battus polydamas) can successfully be hosted on Aristolochia gigantea. Polydamas butterflies rarely go north of Texas and Florida.

Which pipevine plants have you tried in your garden? Do you still have questions about adding aristolchia host plants to your garden? Read comments below for more info:
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  1. The above is totally not true and I would like to speak with the entomologist that stated the above. I have been rearing Pipevine butterflies for 2 years in Southern California with others that are having the same experience as me. Because of lack of food, the colonies are few and far between so planting all varieties is crucial. In my experience, the young PV cats need really soft leaves. Therefore, they do really well on fimbrata, tomentosa, trilobata and macuroa. They also do fine on gigantea and elegans young foliage. My hypothesis is that newly emerged cats on older growth thicker leaves of the gigantea may not being able to penetrate the leaf with their mouthparts as well on the younger leaves (1st/2nd instar). However, the flowers are really soft and large on the elegans and gigante and are saving our colonies because the other varieties can not grow fast enough to keep the food supply going. they eat a lot. We get flowers on gigante and elegans from mid April til the end of summer and the flowers are huge = lots of food. In addition, they are green all year where I live when all the others go dormant. A. californica is their least favorite but is the last to have flowers and the first to come out of dormancy for my early emergers. The last group of PV cats I had to go into chrysalis last year was the end of Sept. and the first ones to wake up were about February when my californica started to emerge. These are my observations. I am not an entomologist but I am a biologist.

  2. I have played with them for years and my kids have too. Never had even the slightest problem. That’s only my case. Don’t know the science though.

  3. Could you provide a source for tropical pipelines being too toxic for caterpillars? Very curious about this subject.

  4. Hi! I’ve been looking and I can’t seem to find an answer, I’m hoping you could help .
    I’ve been trying to find out if these caterpillars will irritate your skin if they come in contact .

  5. Emergency Question! I hope you can help! Pipevine Swallowtails have finally found our two Aristolochia trilobata plants in our native garden. I thought I’d try to raise some caterpillars (from egg), along with the monarchs I usually foster. My first round of butterflies is finally eclosing…but so far I’ve only had ONE do so successfully. I have had four try to emerge but they seem to get stuck, like they can’t pull their pumped up bodies out of their chrysalis. So of course their wings don’t pull out, either, they dry up, and game over. It looks like the chrysalis isn’t opening up for them and they don’t just slide out and up like an Eastern black swallowtail normally does (and I’ve successfully raised LOTS of them). I understand that difficulty eclosing is often a sign of disease in monarchs… is the same true for Pipevines? Am I doing something wrong? I can’t find info anywhere, and I need to find out, as I have about 40 more cats ready to pupate/eclose! Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks!

    1. Just a few weeks ago I had a Monarch who was taking waaaaaaay too long to eclose. As a last-ditch effort, I took a small cup of water (it had been UNUSUALLY DRY here in Central FL!) and I DUNKED the chrysalis TWICE in the tepid water. Now I can’t say FOR CERTAIN the dunking actually helped, but COINCIDENTALLY it successfully eclosed within an hour afterward… Worth a try!

    2. Hi Denise,
      An important thing to remember is that although your Battus philenor caterpillars may make it to the pupa stage feeding on Aristolochia trilobata, it really is not the correct pipevine to be feeding them. In fact, in terms of lineage, A. trilobata is closely related to A. ringens and A. gigantea ( which are toxic to the caterpillars). Athough an occasional individual may make it through to become a healthy adult, most probably won’t which could explain the issues with emerging from the pupa that you described.

  6. My daughter and I were looking through our insect guidebook over the weekend and we talked about the different butterflies we saw last year. We decided to search for a source of pipevines so we could attract some pipevine swallowtails. The Monticello Shop in Charlottesville, VA lists Aristolochia durior so we ordered three plants to test out in the garden this year. I was thinking of using a 16′ cattle panel bent into 1/2 an arch with the top secured to our shed and the bottom anchored in the ground. Will this be sturdy enough to support the vines?

  7. Hi, Tony. I was looking around online to see if I could find anyone who sells the reddish orange Mexican Flame Vine plants, just in case, since my seeds aren’t doing anything (yet). And I found some I like that are sold by a butterfly farm in FL. I see they also sell this Aristolochia Gigantea, and am tempted to contact them. How would you handle a situation like that, if a butterfly farm sells a host plant that’s poisonous to the caterpillars. Feel free to email me if you don’t want to answer here.

    1. Hi Sue, I’ve never been able to start MFV from seed, and talked to others who have also had difficulties…perhaps there is a propagation secret I have yet to uncover. They are easy to start with stem cuttings though. A. gigantea is a host plant for the polydamas swallowtail, so you can plant it. Just be aware, if you want to support pipevine swallowtails, you should add other species that can support them. good luck with your new vines!

  8. Hi Tony, Thanks for being the only one to alert us of Pipevine Swallowtails and the Gigantea! (I bought 2 other pipevines just in case).
    Please do an article regarding passion vines for Zebra Longwings. I planted passion vines and finally had some Zebra Longwing eggs. Since the anoles/lizards will eat them I brought them in. Once they hatched I moved them to fresh cuttings not knowing they are such picky eaters (or its a toxicity issue like the Gigantea) and after a few days they all were dead. Twice. I was stumped. There is no information about this anywhere I looked. I got this email from a local butterfly farm:

    “The issue with your Zebra Longwings is most likely a problem with the passionvine varieties. The Zebras are very finicky, and only eat a few species of passionvine. The only species we have had success with are: Corky Stem (Passiflora suberosa), Maypop (Passiflora incarnata), Inspiration (Passiflora “Inspiration”). The adults may lay eggs on the other varieties, and the caterpillars may eat a little, but they usually die after a few days. In particular, we have tried the Passiflora edulis, caerulea, and Lavender Lady – they are toxic to the Zebra Longwings. The Gulf Fritillaries are not nearly as picky, and will eat quite a few varieties that the Zebras do not.”

    1. Hi Karen, I’m glad you figured out the issue with your Zebra longwings. Butterfly gardening and raising butterflies always requires experimentation and making improvements, often based on situational factors in our specific regions!

    2. Hi Karen,
      What species of Passiflora were you using that killed the zebra longwings? Also from where did you obtain the cuttings? That could help with identifying why they died.
      I have raised zebras very successfully on P. biflora. There are many Passiflora species from Mexico and South America that work well as a zebra longwing hostplant. However, the majority of them do not have a large spectacular flower which is why they are virtually unknown in the nursery trade. There are some species with hairs on the stems that the gulf fritillaries have trouble eating while the zebra longwing does not seem to be bothered by it.

  9. Hi Tony, thanks for the great advice I did want to ask how much time do I have to transfer the caterpillars to my safe aristolochia varieties before the toxicity of the gigantea kills them. Also how far away should I plant the safe varieties from the toxic kinds.

    1. Hi Sergio, those are questions you’ll need to figure out through experimentation in your garden. You are taking a positive step forward by having different species of aristolochia available to your butterfly visitors. I would move the caterpillars whenever you notice them…good luck!

  10. Hi Tony, I have a beautiful aristolochia gigantea vine. And we admire the flowers but I don’t want to harm the pipevine swallowtails. I don’t want to cut it down. Do you have and advice on how I can keep it but still help pipevine swallowtails. Could I possibly add safe aristolochia varieties to my garden for them. It was my first thought to fix the problem but will the pipevine swallowtails keep laying their eggs on it anyway. I don’t know what to do. I think I have the solution but I fear they will still lay their eggs on the gigantea varieties. Please help.
    Thank you

    1. Hi Sergio, you could definitely add a pipevine safe variety and transfer caterpillars over if you see them on the gigantea. good luck!

    2. Tony….If someone really wanted A. gigantea or elegans, could one cover the plants entirely with a fine mesh like tulle? That would be a pain I know. And the plant would have to be completely covered. Both A. giganta and elegans have lovely flowers, but I would hate to lead to ST cat death.

      1. Hi David, A. gigantea is still a host for the Polydamas swallowtail, so I wouldn’t cover it, but you could transfer caterpillars if you notice them. An easier solution might be planting varieties that can successfully host both species of swallowtails: A. fimbriata and A. trilobata.

  11. I have five pipevine chrysalis in a mesh large critter keeper (I raise monarchs in them(. Can I move the chrysalis the same way I do the monarch chrysalis? The caterpillars were on two plants I bought and quickly grew and made chrysalis. Thanks.

    1. Hi Terrie, I know they can be removed, but not sure if there are specific techniques you should try removing this specific chrysalis. You could also just cut off part of the lead that the chrysalis is on and rehang that. I rehang leaves with monarch chrysalides under our kitchen cupboard with a towel underneath in case it falls.

  12. I live in Tucson, AZ and came across some firey red, spiney caterpillars yesterday on a wild ground trailing plant on our ranch. I have always pulled out the plant because it’s trails spread so far out and it gets huge and produces small gourds. I put a picture on Facebook to see if anyone could identify caterpillar and responses were Pipeline Swallowtail. When I went online, I could not find a picture of a red one. Before I pull this, I want to make sure what the caterpillars are so I don’t destroy food for butterflies.

  13. This is depressing. I am a person that does tons of research before purchasing. Yet, I didn’t realize the toxicity until after purchasing this specimen. All I wanted was a great butterfly garden (though I successfully sustained Zebra heliconians on my Passiflora).

    At least it’s dead, I guess…

    1. Hi insect king,

      it is my hope that by posting this information, people can improve their butterfly gardens so that they support more pollinators and their children. All of our gardens are a work in progress…

  14. Hi

    Interested in purchasing pipevines to attract the swallowtails. I live in Southern California ( Orange County). Anybody know a nursery where I can purchase these plants ?

    Any info appreciated , Pete

    1. I live in Anaheim. If you’re interested in getting pipevines, I have 3yr old seed grown aristolochia californica seedlings for sale if you’re still interested.

      1. Pauline, I need these for my garden! Nobody has them! Email me (ironhunt@aol .com) and let me know how much you’re charging. Thank you.

  15. I bought an aristolochia gigantea vine from a local nursery. Right away it attracted adult pipevine swallowtails who laid eggs. There were many caterpillars. By August these butterflies were abundent. I was certainly this pipevine. You can’t fake those flowers.

    1. Hi Susan, I know aristolochia gigantea is successfully used as a host plant by palamedes swallowtail caterpillars, but it has been reported to be more toxic for pipevine swallowtails and many caterpillars die within the first couple instars. I’m glad you had success with it, but there are better artistolochia options for supporting them. Have a great season!

  16. I have a very healthy A. Gigantea vine that I love, but I do not want to kill off butterflies… I have a small dedicated butterfly garden that I fill with a large variety of host/food plants, etc. After reading your list, I plan to look in to some of the other species of pipevines and plant some of those as well; would it be absolutely necessary for me to cut down and get rid of my A. Gigantea vine, or could I keep it around in addition to other pipevine species? I have seen Polydamas swallowtails around in the past, so I know that at least they will take advantage of the A. Gigantea. Any advice? I’d really like to keep it if possible…

    1. Hi Dani, polydamas caterpillars can use the gigantea as a host plant so I would leave it for them. It would be nice though to have another option for the pipevines.

      1. Thank you for the info. now I know what to get for them. Only problem most nurseries don’t even know which kind of vine they have, and that includes the passion flower. what a shame…

        do you of any nurseries that carry these in Miami or a web site that sell seeds for these? I used to have so many citrus in my yard and so full of butterflies.
        1. Aristolochia macrophylla – big leaf pipevine
        2. Aristolochia tomentosa – woolly pipevine
        3. Aristolochia serpentaria – Virginia snakeroot
        4. Aristolochia californica – California pipevine
        5. Aristolochia fimbriata – white-veined Duchman’s pipe
        6. Aristolochia trilobata – Dutchman’s Pipe
        7. Aristolochia clematitis – Birthwort
        8. Aristolochia watsonii – Desert pipevine

        1. Hi Virginia, you would have to seek out local nurseries in your region (I’m up north in Minnesota). You can search for seeds/plants online by clicking on any of the bold orange links in the post.

          Make sure you always look for the “Aristolochia” botanical names since the common pipevine names can cause you to accidentally buy the wrong species of seed/plant. Good luck!

  17. Hi,
    I was wondering if A. Elegans was the same as A. Gigantea? I’m not sure on the species of one of my pipevine. Was told possibly A. Elegans. The flowers are big but do not look the ones pictured above. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks!

    1. Hi Donna, I apologize for the confusion with the common name. A. gigantea is more commonly referred to as “Giant Dutchman’s Pipe”. However, A. elegans (calico flower) is also reported to be toxic to pipevine caterpillars. A. trilobata and A. fimbriata will support both pipevine and polydamas caterpillars. I hope this helps!

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