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Dallas Morning News - May 24, 2018


Pipevine swallowtail butterfly showing underside of wings

There’s a very interesting vine that has a built-in problem - but I recommend it anyway. If you pant this vine, I promise that it will definitely have serious foliage damage - so why should you want it? Well - the damage to the dramatic foliage of this plant will result from the feeding of the larvae of a beautiful butterfly that likes this plant specifically. The plant is the Dutchman’s pipevine and it is available in solid green and variegated forms. These perennial plants are sprawling and climbing with bizarre looking flowers. The botanical name is Aristolochia species, including A. macrophylla, A. serpentaria, A. reticulate, A. fimbriata and others.

Variegated pipevine before the feast begins

What’s left of pipevine after the larvae have attacked

Pipevine swallowtail eggs

Pipevine larva finishing its meal

The damaging insects in this story are medium-sized butterflies called pipevine swallowtails or blue swallowtail (Battus philenor). These beautiful butterflies appear black from a distance but the top of the hind wings actually shimmer with an iridescent blue-green color. The undersides of the hind wings have a row of orange spots on a blue field. These adult butterflies feed solely on nectar from flowers including thistles (Cirsium species), bergamot, lilac, azaleas, phlox, lantana, petunias, verbenas, lupines, buckeyes, yerba santa, brodiaeas, gilias, and others. These pollinators seem to prefer pink, purple and orange colored flowers.

Pipevine looking for a place to pupate

Pipevine larvae finishing their meal - and yes the green balls are caterpillar poop.

Pipevine swallowtail butterfly larva

The larvae of these butterflies are the culprits of the plant damage. They are reddish brown to black caterpillars with lighter colored bumps and darker filaments. The pipevine plants that the butterfly larvae like so much are somewhat toxic but the pipevine butterfly larvae not only tolerate the toxin but also save in in their bodies and pass it on to the adult butterflies. This toxic condition causes them to be distasteful to birds and other predators. Some other species of swallowtail butterflies actually imitate some of the pipevine features to get some protection for themselves.

Adult pipevine swallowtail butterfly

This fascinating process just played out in my back yard. The caterpillars are crawling around all over the place looking like wooly bears at first glance. Maybe you will have some as well. Don’t hurt them and they will soon turn into one of the most beautiful and certainly most interesting of the insects in your garden. The pipevine plants will be moderately to severely damaged from all this action but they will return to look pretty and feed the next batch of butterflies. I hope you enjoy them.

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