Sunday, October 28, 2018

Growing Aristolochia Californica

I took the time this morning to read a bit about what people recommend concerning the growing of this plant. Some important information is being left out, so I am putting my thoughts into this blog.
I have I growing California Pipevine for more than ten years. It is now well established and takes care of itself for the most part. But I had a few false starts. It does need some attention for the first few years, especially because it is slow to get going. Have you heard the saying, "first year it sleeps, second year it creeps, and third year it leaps"? Yes, it needs to be monitored until it gets going. 

Where should it be planted?  The roots like lots of shade. So the first one I planted I put into complete shade. It died after a couple of years. I think it is better to plant it someplace where it gets dappled shade or half a day of sun, and then mulch the roots. I don't like mulch much because it reduces habitat for ground-nesting bees, but it can be useful in certain circumstances, such as when Aristolochia roots need to be kept cool. 

Another thought when planting is to plan for something for it to climb into. One of mine grows on deck and staircase balusters. A trellis can work. They really seem to love growing up through another bush or tree. My plant that is growing into the Rhododendron seems especially happy. The Rhodie gives the roots heavy shade and the leaves dappled shade. Perfect!

I have seen it growing nicely on the ground at the UC Botanical Garden. The problem with this is, like some other vines, it doesn't flower or fruit unless it is growing vertically. And then it is really boring! 

It needs water. After all, it is riparian, which means it normally grows near a source of water. If there is no natural source of water, it will need to be watered for at least the first year. Planting it near a lawn or other plants that get regular water is a good idea. 

Then, it needs protection. It is toxic and deer resistant, so deer are not too much of a problem. But but since it is so slow, it can be overtaken by weeds. Again, mulch can help. But hand weeding may also be necessary.  

This plant has associations with at least three insects. The Pipevine Swallowtail larvae and adult are pictured here. This caterpillar feeds on the leaves. And the adult only lays eggs on Aristolochia. It definitely uses other plants in this genus, but in California, the California Pipevine was the only hostplant until non-native Aristolochias were imported. 

The weird maroon and green flowers are pollinated by a fungus gnat. Seems like they have their needs, too. As you might guess, fungus gnats like dark moist places, and flowers that get too much sun are sometimes not pollinated. 

The third insect is a wasp that steals the seeds when the fruits open. I guess they eat them. The wasps love the seeds so much that they are there the second the fruits open and will take every last one. I bag the fruits in June so that the wasps can't get to them and I can have seeds to plant. But  I suspect that the wasps are effective propagators as well. Aristolochia weeds show up in random places in the UC Botanical Garden. I am convinced that the wasps drop the seeds and they sprout where they land. So, if you want Aristolochia to grow in your neighbors yards, leave some seeds for the wasps. 

Keep in mind that if you want the butterflies, just one plant in your backyard isn't going to be enough. So rogue plants growing from seeds distributed by friendly wasps into neighbors' backyards may be a charming answer to how to grow enough hostplants to create habitat. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Planting Hostplants

Tim Wong has worked long and hard on his Pipevine Swallowtails. Not only raising and releasing the butterflies, but also raising awareness about their habitat and hostplants. Which is wonderful. I just worry that gardeners are going to be disappointed when they put pipevine (Aristolochia californica) in their garden and it doesn't bring the butterfly immediately. 

I know some people have fabulous luck when planting pipevine and have females laying eggs in their yard almost immediately. But other people (such as myself) have pipevine for years with little luck. 

I suspect that the lucky ones live near an established colony. I don't exactly know how close the new pipevine would have to be to the old. But I am guessing it would need to be within a quarter mile. I am about a mile from a colony on the UC Berkeley Campus. And about half a mile from a colony in flatlands Berkeley. But I have only had eggs one year in the approximately 20 years I have had pipevine in my yard. :-(

In addition, according to the literature, a colony needs at least a football field of pipevine. The colonies I am aware of have much less than that. But they do have more than would ordinarily be found in one backyard. 

So, yes! Please plant more pipevine! But also, encourage your neighbors to plant pipevine. And if you can provide a corridor of backyard pipevine extending from an established colony to your property, you are more likely to have success with butterfly visitors. 

The Pipevine Swallowtail is a big beautiful butterfly and a big beautiful caterpillar. I support all efforts to increase the population so we can all enjoy seeing more of it. 

The pipevine plant is not particularly showy. But the weird flowers and delicate vine are a nice addition to native gardens. Like most vines, it likes heavy shade for the roots and dappled shade on the leaves. Mine is very happy growing up through a rhododendron. I am hoping to see eggs on it in he spring. 

Monday, May 14, 2018


I remember this creature from entomology class. But I think I had never seen a live one until a couple of weeks ago when a friend showed me a photo he had taken at the UC Botanical Garden. Then I saw this one in Oakland last Friday. I knew what it was immediately. It is so distinctive because of its snaky look. So I looked it up to find out more about this insect.
First of all, it looks like a snake because of the elongated prothorax. Both adults and immatures eat aphids, mites, etc. Because they are predators as both adults and larvae, they have been considered as biocontrol agents. 

The female lays eggs in bark or rotten wood. After the eggs hatch, there are 10-11 instars. Pupation takes place in a cell. But the pupa, which can move, sometimes leaves the cell for a second location before the adult emerges. 

They commonly live in coniferous forests in the Western US, and around the globe. But this one was in a suburban home. Maybe I brought it inside inadvertently. There are some conifers around there. There are also conifers at the Bot Garden. But I would not call those places coniferous forest. 

Thanks to wikipedia for the info.

Monday, April 23, 2018


I am providing a list of the educational books and movies that I have worked on.

My papercraft book is designed for kids about 6-10 years old. Each craft teaches a bit about butterflies: anatomy, host plants, pollination, etc. And it has many suggestions for outdoor activities so that kids become familiar with real live insects.

I was consulting entomologist on two films that I worked on with my brother. The short one is a Monarch lifecycle. It has fabulous detail and amazing photography. Perfect for people of all ages.

The long one is all about butterflies.  Predation, conservation, butterfly gardening, etc. Wonderful closeups! Great for all ages. It has chapters, so for younger kids it can be shown a chapter at a time.

If you have any questions about my publications, or about butterflies in general, feel free to contact me.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Pollination of Aristolochia californica

This flower is not showy. It is sort of greenish. And the maroon parts seem to blend in with the brown parts of the plant. If you are not looking for the flowers, they are easy to miss. So it is not pollinated by bees or butterflies, which usually visit colorful flowers. It is pollinated by fungus gnats. You can see the dead or unconsciousness fungus gnats a the bottom of this flower which has been cut open. They get in through the "mouth" at the upper right. Probably attracted by some mushroomy smell. They fly to the anthers, at the upper left. This part of the flower is light and bright, and they must think that they can get out that way. When they get tired out, they fall to the bottom, where they can see the light through the mouth, and find their way out when they revive. At least that is what I surmise, from looking at the flower, and knowing insect behavior. 

I have read that the insects escape when the flower wilts. However, as you can see from the faded flower below, the shape doesn't change when it wilts. So I don't see how that would work.
You can also see the fruit beginning to develop in the photo above. See the striped portion above the brown flower? That is the fruit when it is still tiny. 

I have read that fungus gnats like moist cool habitats. Which would make sense, because that is where mushrooms grow. I have noticed that pipevine plants that grow in the sun have few fruits, even if they have lots of flowers. Since the fungus gnats don't like that environment, they don't visit much, the flowers don't get pollinated, and the fruits don't develop. 

Some people think that since Pipevine swallowtails visit this plant, that they pollinate it. No, they lay their eggs on it. 

This plant has relationships with at least three different insects. The fungus gnats that pollinate it. The butterflies that lay their eggs on it. And the wasps that eat the seeds. 

And this is a poisonous plant! 

I am sure other plants have interesting relationships with many insects. But I know about this one because of the butterfly. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Cleyera Japonica, Sacred Tree

This tree is native to warm, humid forests, but it seems happy at the UC Botanical Garden. It is sacred in the Shinto religion. Branches are decorated with streamers and used as offerings or as props in ritual dance. Branches are also used in purification and decoration. It is attached to buildings or fences 

More info here:
Cleyera japonicaan evergreen tree whose branches are used in Shinto ritual, for example, as offering wands (tamagushi) presented before a kami. When presented as tamagushi, it is usual to attach paper streamers (shide) to the branch. Branches of sakaki are also used for decoration, purification implements, and as hand-held "props" (torimono) in ritual dance. Sakaki may also be affixed to shrine buildings or fences as a means of designating the interior as sacred space. Theories regarding the etymology of the word sakaki range from those based on the nature of the sakaki as an "evergreen" or "always thriving tree" (sakaeru-ki), and thus point to the sense of prosperity or thriving, to others which derive from the use of the tree as a "border-tree" (sakai-ki) used to demarcate sacred space. In the "divine age" chapters of Kojiki, the term sakaki appears in the episode of the rites observed to draw Amaterasu out of the heavenly rock cave; the passage states that "they tore from the very roots the flourishing masakaki of the mountain Ame no Kaguyama," festooned it with jewel beads, a mirror, and cloth (nigite). A similar passage is found in Nihongi, which also includes a passage in the record of Emperor Keikō that speaks of the "sakaki of Mount Shitsu," while the record of Emperor Chūai refers to a "flourishing (lit., ‘five-hundred branch') sakaki." All of these records note that jewels, swords, and mirrors were hung from the branches. The sakaki has been used since ancient times in divine rituals. While the name originally referred to all evergreens, it gradually was limited to those trees of the tea (Theaceae) family. In practice, however, a number of other trees, including oak (kashi), cryptomeria (sugi), boxwood (tsuge), and fir (momi) are sometimes substituted in ritual use. As the examples of masakaki found in Kojiki and Nihongi suggest, the trees were decorated in a number of different ways: some were adorned with mirrors, jewels, and swords, some with five-colored silks, mirror, jewels and swords, while others were decorated only with five-colored silks. In the Rules for Ritual Procedure at Shrines (Jinja saishiki) implemented in 1875, the term masakaki is used to refer to two poles of Japanese cypress (hinoki), to the tips of which are attached branches of sakaki, and below which are attached five-color silks (blue, yellow, red, white, and purple). The pole on the right (when facing the shrine) is decorated with a mirror and a jewel, and the one on the left with a sword.

-Inoue Nobutaka
An offering of sakaki at Niutsu Hime jinja

Wakayama Prefecture, 2005

©Fujii Hiroaki

Imitation sakaki made of plastic


Courtesy of Shinto Museum of Kokugakuin University

sakaki branch attached to a torii gate at Atsuta Jingū.

Aichi prefecture, 2005

©Ōsawa Kōji
"Establishment of a National Learning Institute for the Dissemination of Research on Shinto and Japanese Culture"
4-10-28 Higashi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 150-8440, Japan
Copyright ©2002-2006 Kokugakuin University. All rights reserved.
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Holiday Gift Suggestions

Anybody looking for butterfly gifts? My book is great for kids in elementary school.


This movie is wonderful for all ages, although you may need to explain a bit to younger ones. . It is a short of the Monarch lifecycle.

Secret Lives of Monarchs

Last but not least, the 45 minute film that covers many aspects of butterflies; predators, behavior, conservation, etc. The price listed is for those who want to do public shows. If you want to watch at home, it is much cheaper.

This one is best for middle school an up, but it can be shown to younger kids chapter by chapter.