Birdwings and butterfly vines

· Guest post by Malcolm Tattersall ·

Many of us know that we should grow a particular vine to attract Birdwing butterflies to our gardens but just what the vine is called, and which butterflies rely on it, are recurring questions.

Very briefly, the caterpillars of one group of Swallowtail butterflies feed exclusively on one group of closely-related plants. The butterflies are the Troidini, a “tribe” (in scientific language that’s a level between “family” and “genus”) of Swallowtails (Papilionidae) and the plants are the Birthworts (Aristolochiaceae).

Our Troidini are the Clearwing Swallowtail (Cressida cressida), Red-bodied Swallowtail (Pachliopta polydorus) and all of the Birdwings (Ornithoptera species). The Aristolochiaceae we’re interested in are in the genus Aristolochia, or used to be. Many of them are commonly known as Dutchman’s Pipe vines.

Everything gets messy at the next level of detail. If you want to avoid that but still attract the butterflies to your garden, this is all you need to know:

  • Aristolochia acuminata, also known as Aristolochia tagala, is a food plant of all our Birdwing species and of the Red-bodied and Clearwing Swallowtails, and it is the vine most widely grown in Townsville gardens. It is sold by the Bush Garden Nursery as Aristolochia acuminata.
  • Richmond Butterfly Vine, Pararistolochia praevenosa, is a food plant of all Birdwing species and the Red-bodied Swallowtail. It is the vine widely promoted in SE Queensland as the “birdwing butterfly vine.”
  • Dutchman’s Pipe Vine, Aristolochia elegans also known as Aristolochia littoralis, is the main one to avoid. It’s an exotic, introduced from South America, and it poisons our butterflies. The adults lay their eggs on it but the caterpillars rarely survive.
  • If you stick to the Latin names, there should be no confusion about which vine is which.‬

One reason that the questions never seem to go away is that there have been changes in the scientific names of both the vines and the butterflies. Another is that “common names” (the names in English) are used inconsistently to cover several similar species. And, finally, there are several other native vines which are food plants for one swallowtail butterfly or another. All of these are discussed in the longer original version of this article on my blog “Green Path”.