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What Is Dutchman's Pipe?

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  • Written By: Greer Hed
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2014
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The common name "Dutchman's pipe" is applied to many different types of unrelated flowering plants. These include plants of the genus Aristolochia, or pipevines; a member of the cactus family, Epiphyllum oxypetalum, also called by its common name, night-blooming cereus; and Monotropa hypopitys, a rare flowering plant found growing under pine trees. All of these plants have flowers whose shape resembles that of a tobacco pipe, hence their common name. "Dutchman's pipe" is most often used when referring to plants of the genus Aristolochia, which are grown as decorative garden plants and were also once used in herbal medicine.

Over 500 unique plant species of the genus Aristolochia exist. These species are indigenous to countries the world over, with the exception of Australia. Most species are woody climbing vines, which may be either evergreen or deciduous, meaning that some species lose their leaves in autumn and others do not.

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Dutchman's pipe vines can be as small as six feet (about two meters), but can reach lengths of up to 20 feet (six meters). Each vine has abundant wide, flat leaves that are dark green in color and shaped like hearts. The unusual, eye-catching flowers that give Dutchman's pipe its name can bloom as early as the late winter months or as late as midsummer, depending on the individual plant species. These exotic flowers are deep purple and pale green in color. They are bulbous at the base with a long, tapered "tongue" that extends from the bulb, with the bulb representing the bowl of a tobacco pipe and the tongue representing its stem.

While the flowers of Dutchman's pipe are attractive and unusual, their smell may be objectionable to some gardeners. The plants' pollination method involves attracting insects that become temporarily trapped inside the long, tube-like part of the plant. To attract these insects, the plants emit a powerful aroma that has been compared by some to the smell of rotting meat.

Dutchman's pipe will tolerate a wide range of different growing conditions. It will grow and thrive in a sunny spot, but is just as likely to grow successfully in partial shade. Since the plant is a climbing vine, it requires a trellis, fence, or other structure that offers it support as it climbs.

These plants were once used to treat a variety of medical complaints. Another common name for Dutchman's pipe is birthwort, and indeed the plants were historically used to facilitate childbirth. Other species were used to treat snakebite or to disinfect wounds. In modern times, most medical professionals advise against using the plants for medicinal purposes, as all plant parts are in fact highly toxic. Some butterflies that are immune to the plant's poisons become poisonous themselves after eating Dutchman's pipe, making them a threat to any potential predators.

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