California pipevine

Aristolochia californica, California pipevine or California Dutchman's-pipe, native vine flowering with chrysalis of Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly

Aristolochia californica, California pipevine,  with chrysalis of pipevine swallowtail butterfly

California pipevine (Aristolochia californica) is one of the first plants to flower in my northern California garden, sending forth dozens, no hundreds, of tiny blossoms on leafless stems in mid-winter, after the manzanitas but before flashier plants such as native irises grab center stage.  Their appearance, noticed only up close at first, signals the approaching end of winter and fuels my anticipation of full-on gardening weather.

The flowers are, to say the least, unusual.  They grow more like fruits than flowers, maturing, right before your eyes, from a millimeter or two to an inch and a half long on the vine.  Most plants hide their flowers in one way or another before they spring into view, full size, at maturity.  On plants of California pipevine, you can see the tiniest immature flowers alongside partially mature and mature flowers at the same time.  I go out daily to check on the progress of tiny flowers I saw the day before.

Aristolochia californica - Dutchman's Pipe, flowering California native plant

Aristolochia californica flower

Reputed to prefer lots of moisture, even riparian sites, California pipevine seems to do quite well with little or no summer water in shade to part shade or at least afternoon shade, even on the inland side of central California’s coastal hills.  While the upper leaves seem to like some sun, the roots must be cool, especially in hot summer weather.  I have one planted in an oversized clay pot that receives morning sun but is fully shaded on summer afternoons by a second-story deck.  I attached the vine to a deck post and strung it along the joists, mostly because I wanted to see the details of the individual flowers and the bright green heart-shaped leaves.  In nature it is often a tangle of stems with a mass of old leaves along with the new, as some spent leaves tend to stay on the plant well into the following year.

California pipevine is the only host plant of the native pipevine swallowtail, which is why I planted it in the first place.  I have yet to see a single caterpillar on my plants, but hope, even hope in vain, is what keeps gardeners going.  The leaves are said to produce a toxic chemical that, when ingested by caterpillars, makes them and the butterflies they become unattractive to predators.  I cannot attest to any of this as I have not seen a pipevine swallowtail in my garden.

Aristolochia californica, California pipevine or California Dutchman's-pipe, native vine used as sprawling vine on hill by steps in Schieffelin native plant garden

Aristolochia californica, California pipevine, used as sprawling groundcover

You will hear that California pipevine is slow to start, even hard to grow.  That has not been my experience.  The first year I planted my vine in the pot underneath the deck it was ripped out, likely by a raccoon.  I stuffed it rather hastily back in the pot, unwilling to just let it go, and in weeks it was showing signs of new life.  The first year it grew perhaps six feet tall, no flowers.  The second year it had many flowers and had extended its reach perhaps twice that high.  By the third year it was covered in flowers and had reached more than twelve feet.  This winter, six years in, it is easily fifteen feet in full extent and the flowers are coming out an inch or two apart.

This is a vigorous, robust, vital native California plant with great habitat value, well worth a place in any summer-dry garden.  It is native to central and northern California in foothill woodlands, chaparral, and mixed evergreen forests, usually but not always on sites that provide at least some moisture year-round.

 

Dwarf Coyote Brush

holt_639_545.CR2In the world of living plants and landscapes there is no equivalent of the little black dress – the absolutely carefree plant that goes anywhere with the right accessories – but this has never stopped us from looking for one.  Nor has it stopped us from believing we’ve found such a plant, from embracing it with too much enthusiasm and then rejecting it outright when it fails to live up to impossible expectations, moving on to the next high fashion.

Nowhere is this trend more obvious than in our vain attempts to completely cover the ground.  In the 1960s we planted junipers.  In the ‘80s and ‘90s it was ‘Emerald Carpet’ manzanita.  And between those times, somewhere in the 1970s, surely it was dwarf coyote brush.

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Each time we learned that all plants need a little maintenance, they don’t last forever, and there are limits to their tolerance.  What we didn’t seem to learn is that there were good reasons we fell in love with these plants and, though perhaps somewhat out of fashion now, there are still good reasons for planting them.

Dwarf coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) was once commonly planted as a low-water evergreen groundcover over large expanses in new housing developments, where it spread quickly from widely spaced one-gallon cans and looked quite wonderful for five to ten years and sparse, rangy, or mostly dead a few years later.  It has fared much better in the landscapes of experienced gardeners who know it responds vigorously to regular cutting back and greens right up with a little summer water.

The cultivated variety ‘Pigeon Point’ is about a foot tall and mounding higher, spreading eight to ten feet wide, with small, densely set bright green leaves and tiny yellowish white flowers.

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Dwarf Coyote Brush, Baccharis pilularis ‘Pigeon Point’

Deer resistant and requiring little to no summer water, coyote brush thrives in most soils, takes full sun to part shade, slows erosion on slopes, and is a great habitat plant, providing food and cover for birds, small animals, and butterflies.

Use it in manageably small areas, intersperse with other low-water natives, and provide access for maintenance with paths or permeable pavings.