Pipevine is a native plant that you will find along waterways, including along Chico Creek in Bidwell Park. There is a nice stand along the entry gate at Bryant and Vallombrosa, and then another along the pathway as you make your way into the park. It usually grows along the ground, the leaves shaped like a rounded arrow head. In February or March, it gets the flowers that give the name – they look like tiny Meerschaum pipes, kind of pinkish in color. They attract immature mosquitoes, who get trapped inside the pipe stem – I’ve found dozens of dead mosquitoes in these flowers.
This plant has given it’s name to a local native butterfly, the black butterfly whose wings turn a rainbow of colors in the sunlight, the Pipevine Swallowtail. I start to see these butterflies appear in my yard, all over my fruit trees and other early blossoms, about February. The begin to pop out of their cocoons about that time – one place you can usually see a lot of cocoons is under the freeway, hanging from the concrete risers. You’ll also find them on little shrubs around and about the park if you look really good. Once you’ve seen one, they’re easier to spot.
Not so easy to spot are the bright orange eggs, lined in a bright row, each egg an oval about the size of a pinhead. These are laid close by the Pipevine, which is of course the caterpillars’ only food.
Right now if you examine a patch of Pipevine, you will find the fantastic looking caterpillars, black with bright orange markings and little fleshy antennae all along their bodies. If you piss them off they will raise up these weird orange antennae, but I don’t want you out there molesting them. Just watch. Once you spot one of them, you’ll start to see a lot, of all sizes, right down to barely visible. Look for the places where they’ve been eating the leaves, or maybe you’ll spot some of their tiny black turds.
Once you’ve seen these bugs, you’ll never forget, and every year you’ll be back in the park, turning leaves over.
In the next month or so, they will begin their trek. They get about two or three inches long and fat, time to make their cocoon. They always travel quite a distance to do this, I think they want to be near a patch of vinca or some other flower when they hatch out as a butterfly – I notice, that nasty vinca is actually one of the butterfly’s fave foods, I’ve grown to love those blue flowers cause they appear early in the year for butterfly food.
Watch your step and your bicycle tires, and hey, try not to use your car in the park this time of year.