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What is Aristolochia?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2016
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Aristolochia is a genus of woody vines and perennial herbs known collectively as birthworts, Dutchman's pipes, or pipevines. There are about 500 species, growing in very diverse climates around the world, though no species are native to Australia. Many species are cultivated for their spectacular flowers, which often grow in a curved, pipe-like shape.

Toxic and potentially fatal in large quantities, Aristolochia nonetheless has a long history of use in traditional medicine. Different species have been used to treat maladies including snakebite, fever, and malaria. Other medicinal uses include weight loss, the expulsion of parasitic worms, and helping a woman expel the placenta after giving birth. Many cases of kidney failure and death have been linked to medication with Aristolochia. A. rotunda, or smearwort, has been used topically to treat chronic sores, and its leaves are sometimes boiled as food.

Many species of butterfly and moth feed on Aristolochia, and the toxin in the plant makes them undesirable to predators. A. californica, commonly called California Dutchman's pipe or California pipevine, is endemic to California and serves as the only food source of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly. Similarly, the Southern Birdwing and Common Birdwing butterflies of South Asia rely on the native A. indica for their survival. the Common Birdwing and Common Rose butterflies also feed on A. tagala, or Indian birthwort.

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A. grandiflora, or the pelican flower, is native to the Caribbean, but was introduced to Florida for its ability to attract butterflies. A. gigantea, commonly called Brazil Dutchman's pipe or giant pelican flower, has one of the most spectacular flowers of the genus and is a popular ornamental plant. Its gigantic flowers are mottled red with a yellow center. A. labiata, commonly called mottled Dutchman's pipe or rooster flower, is another ornamental species native to Brazil.

One Brazilian species, A. littoralis, has become an invasive species in the United States. Commonly called the calico flower or elegant Dutchman's pipe, A. littoralis attracts the caterpillar of an endangered species of Birdwing butterfly. The caterpillar is not adapted to withstand the flower's toxin, however, and is fatally poisoned.

Many Aristolochia species are threatened or endangered, including A. cucurbitifolia, which only grows in Taiwan. A. cucurbitoides, A. delavayi, A. hainanensis, A. obliqua, A. scytophylla, A. thwaitesii, A. tuberosa, A. yunnanensis, and A. utriformis, all endemic to China, are also of poor conservation status. A. westlandii, native to China and Hong Kong, is critically endangered.

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