Georgia Department of Agriculture

Pelican Flower - The Giant Dutchman's Pipe

I have a child-like fascination with odd plants. If it is unusual and attention-grabbing, the better I like it. 

It was that fascination that led me to purchase a pelican flower from a local nursery last spring. This tropical vine is also known as “giant Dutchman's pipe” (botanical name Aristolochia gigantea ).

There are numerous species of Dutchman’s pipes. They get their name from the flower’s resemblance to a meerschaum pipe.  On some species this is more pronounced than others. The most prominent feature on the species I grew is its large corolla.  Before it opens, the corolla swells and resembles the throat of a pelican, hence the name. It then splits open into a huge heart-shaped maroon flower.

The fragrance of the pelican flower has been described as “lemony.”  However, in my garden it was more like dishwater with lemon detergent.  It wasn’t strong or particularly unpleasant, however, and compared with some other maroon flowers, the fragrance of the pelican flower is delightful.  You see, flowers shaped and colored as the pelican flower usually rely on flies as pollinators and have an odor that attracts them.  Odors that are attractive to flies are usually not attractive to humans.  In fact, the open blossom of the pelican flower can be said to resemble a piece of well-marbled rotting meat with a center the color of bone or fat!  Would you be more grossed out if I told you that most garden visitors said the unopened flowers looked like lungs? (Human, not pelican, anatomy was more familiar to my friends.)

Flies or other insects did not come to visit its flowers, however, and it produced no seeds.  (I suppose there were more attractive odors to enjoy in Cabbagetown.) Since it is a tropical, I will have to purchase another this spring if I want to try it again. 

And I am likely to try it again.  It was fun, and children as well as adults were fascinated by it. In spite of some of the descriptions, the open flowers are very attractive, a fitting subject for Georgia O’Keefe.

I had hoped that the pipevine swallowtail would come and lay eggs on it since various Dutchman’s pipes serve as host plants for the butterfly’s caterpillars. Alas, they did not come. I wished for a crop of the curious black caterpillars with the orange spines and flocks of this beautiful black butterfly with its peacock blue sheen. That was my only disappointment with the pelican flower. 

I have made plans to lure the butterflies with another species of Dutchman’s pipe, the hardy white-veined Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia fimbriata ).  The flowers are not as grand as the pelican flower, but I don’t mind substituting some showy flowers for showy butterflies. And if I can find room, I just might plant both kinds of Dutchman’s pipe as well as some of the other species.

                                                                                                                               -- Arty Schronce

Arty Schronce lives and gardens in the historic Cabbagetown neighborhood of Atlanta. He encourages everyone to discover the pleasures of plants and gardening.

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