Category Archives: Aristolochia

Aristolochia clematitis – birthwort

I’ve passed by this plant many times before and I’ve just registered it as ‘a weed’. I should have looked, and seen it was something strange – a birthwort, cousin to A. rotunda I posted a while ago here, but with smaller flowers and stalked leaves. A plant with a long history: there is a fossil record of this family from the Cretaceous (135-65 million years ago – the dinosaur era). It’s not exclusively southern, but native to most of Europe.  I wonder if it’s what Ceridwen saw in Godstow.

It  likes to be near some water, and I saw it just opposite a stream by the side of a patch of ‘waste ground’ (is there such a thing?) near our vegetable garden in the village.  Some who have followed Chaiselongue’s blog Olives and Atichokes will know that this ground has been bought by our Mairie and sold to a developer: there will be a hundred (!) new houses, and this particular patch will be ‘une espace verte’.  They’ve done well so far in creating a green space – by bulldozing the area, eliminating orchids, wild fennel, broom, valerian, and wild sweet peas, and installing gravel and street lights.  I expect the treated wood planters (with non-native species which will be neglected and die, to be replaced with Coke cans and beer bottles) to arrive next. Will the birthwort at the edge of the area survive?  Why do local councils, developers and politicians hate wild green spaces – that is, Nature, – so much?  Can we stop using the words weed and waste?

PS – I’ve just found some more of these growing through cracks in the concrete by the same stream – a more hopeful image of nature overcoming ‘development’ (photo by Chaiselongue).  Aristolochia is also called pipewort, so I’m glad it grows where we put our hosepipe to siphon water down to the garden! I’m going to write a short piece in Occitan about them for the new twice-yearly Occitan news-sheet.  That should give the developers pause for thought.

PPS – I should remind you all that this plant is poisonous: see the full account here.

So this is a song for plants – and people – not recognised and not properly appreciated:  the old Ray Charles song You don’t know me , played by Patricia Barber.

Coming up next: Almodóvar and botany? What?



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Aristolochia rotunda – round-leafed birthwort

A bizarre-looking plant with a brownish-purple flap over the flower, which makes it both hard to photograph and slightly sinister. As soon as she saw it in the ditch where I found it, Chaiselongue said ‘That looks poisonous’.  Maybe it’s the colour – that yellowy purple-brown.

It’s  my plant of the week – because I’ve never seen one before.  Not even in those days when I had to take my turn with the school vasculum and collect plants over the weekend, ready for dissection and identification in the double-Botany slot on Monday afternoons.  Not surprising: there are related species in Britain, but this one is Mediterranean, as this map (courtesy of the French site Tela Botanica) shows.

Distribution of Aristolochia rotunda in France

So, to the names.  Why birthwort?  Aristolochia comes from the Greek aristos (best – I know, I don’t agree either) and locheia (childbirth), because the herb was apparently used to assist childbirth by speeding contractions, probably by analogy with the flower (a calyx, i.e. sepals, the plant has no petals) which has a long tube with a seed at the end. Rotunda for the shape of the leaves.  Now of the three plants I’ve featured so far the first (viola) symbolised love, the second (garlic) health and sex, and now birth: clearly we’ve turned to plants to help us with the major experiences of life.  All three are associated with signs of the Zodiac (Aries, Taurus and Libra, respectively) – a reminder of the outlook which saw the shapes  of the natural world, the heavenly bodies and human wellbeing all as part of the same fabric. I am finding that investigating plants and their names is an express route back to the middle ages and the classical world.

Aristolochia is well known in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, which suggests that the genus came from Asia originally, though it was also known to the Greek Theophrastus.  It was introduced to North America by Europeans. However, plants of this genus seem pretty unhealthy and have been linked to renal cancers (see here).

It is apparently pollinated by small midges which, attracted by the colour and scent, enter the tube and can’t get out because there are downward-facing hairs inside which only relax after pollination.  It’s a feisty plant.

I was more interested to read that it is the only host plant (food source) for the caterpillars of Zerynthia polyxena, which is a stunning butterfly.  I suppose that’s the caterpillar you can see in this picture.  Eating the leaves makes them poisonous to birds.

So to sum up: avoid eating it, even if your Chinese herbalist recommends it – unless you’re being attacked by  birds.

Coming up in a post soon – a book that was in print for 1500 years and two meanings of a snake’s name.

Jazz seems relatively poor in songs about childbirth – I’m sure you can think of reasons as well as I can.  So to r&b, with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and their ‘Annie had a baby’ from 1954.


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