Aristolochiaceae is comprised of four genera, two of which occur in California. Aristolochia (Dutchman's pipe, birthwort) and Asarum (Wild ginger) are herbaceous perennial plants that are found in woodlands and forests with available soil moisture. Aristolochia is a vine that grows in and near riparian zones. It is most often found in the shade, but will also grow in full sun where its roots have a reliable moisture supply. Asarum grows in the understory of redwood trees.

Both plants are used as herbal remedies. Aristolochia (Aristo- (best) -lochia (birth)) has been used since ancient Egypt to aid in childbirth and for other uses. Both Aristolochia and Asarum produce aristolochic acid, which is being evaluated for its medicinal purposes. While it may have beneficial uses, it is also a potentially lethal poison, so use extreme caution before you consider using it.

Butterflies make uses of the aristolochic acid. Larvae of swallowtail butterflies feed on these plants to increase the level of aristolochic acid in their bodies. This makes them unpalatable to predators. This is the same type of relationship that monarch butterfly caterpillars have with milkweed. Interestly, however, there are cases around the world where a species of Aristolochia was introduced into an area, and proved lethal to native species of swallowtail larvae.


Magnoliid Plant Families

Plant Relationships

Native Genera:


(Dutchman's pipe)
(Wild ginger)

Related Genera:


Related Families
(Jepson (2012) only:


(Pepper) (Non native)
(Yerba mansa)


Growth Forms:

All members of Aristolochiaceae in California are herbaceous perennials. Aristolochia are vining shrubs. Asarum are herbaceous perennials that expand as groundcovers on the forest floor.


Alternate branching


Heart shaped, simple leaves. The Aristolochia leaves are about 1" across, and may curl slightly inwards. Asarum leaves are larger (3"-4") across, dark green, with a waxy gloss. They tend to roll gently outward.


Aristolochia flowers are showy and distinctive. The California species does indeed look like a Dutchman's pipe.
Both Aristolochia and Asarum are pollinated by carrion feeding insects. Asarum flowers lay on the ground. They have a rusty red color, and are attractive to carrion flies as they emerge from the ground at the end of winter.
Aristolochia flowers emit a foul odor that attracts fungus gnats. They get trapped in the flower long enough to tranfer pollen.


The seeds are held in pods that look somewhat like ridged cucumbers. They split openthe long way and the seeds fall out. Aristolochia ripens in mid to late summer.

Growing Conditions

Natural Habitat:

Both Aristolochia and Asarum grow in protected environments. Asarum is found in the redwood understory. Aristolochia is most commonly found in riparian zones. It may grow somewhat outside the riparian zone if it is well rooted in deep soil with a ready moisture source.

Shade Tolerance:

They are shade tolerant.

Soil and Moisture:

They prefer deep soil that is well structured and fertile, with a ready moisture supply throughout the year.

Horticulture and Restoration

Horticultural Comments:

These plants readily adapt to rich soil and irrigation, so would work well in protected gardens. It may be hard to start them where it is sunny or where the air is hot and dry, but it can be done. Aristolochia was well known in ancient Egypt, where the air was certainly hot and dry.

Wildlife Habitat:

Aristolochia is a larval food source for swallowtail butterflies. The flowers of both Aristolochia and Asarum are pollinated by carrion feeders, such as carrion flies or fungus gnats. Interesting botanically, but not much to see.

Restoration Projects:

These plants can only be used where there is a preexisting mature tree canopy. You cannot install these plants in full sun, even with irrigation. As a result, these are best for enhancment and enrichment, rather than initial installation.

California Native
Plant Guide

Jepson (2012) (APG System)



Jepson (1993) (Cronquist System)



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