The Carnivorous Plant FAQ v. 12

Q: How did the Venus flytrap get its name?

A: Heh heh heh. Heh heh heh heh. Heh heh heh heh.

As lovely as Venus?
Here's what I tell the kids.

The Venus flytrap gets the "Venus" part of its name because its flowers are really pretty (like the goddess Venus) and are white, like the planet Venus in the sky. The plant is not from Venus. The "Flytrap" part comes from its obvious bug-eating attributes.

This is, however...what shall I call it? A "comfortable fallacy." You often see this story maintained in books about carnivorous plants, but this is because of an article that John Ellis wrote in 1768. This is what you would call a cover story:

"...and from the beautiful Appearance of its Milk-white Flowers, and the Elegance of its Leaves, thought it well deserved one of the Names of the Goddess of Beauty, and therefore called it Dionaea."

What do you see?
The true reason that Venus is part of this plant's name due to the dirty minds of the kooky naturalists and nuserymen (such as John & William Bartram, Peter Collinson, William Darlington, Arthur Dobbs, John Ellis, and Daniel Solander). When they looked at the plant, they saw in its amazing behavior and attractive form (two red, glistening lobes, surrounded by hairs, sensitive to the touch), something that reminded them of female genitalia of their own species. Indeed!

Amongst themselves, this cabal of learned perverts referred to the plant as a "tipitiwitchet" (or "Tippity Twitchet"). It was subsequently assumed by historians that this was a Native American term, but linguistic experts have eliminated that as a possibility.

Tipitiwitchet, it appears, was a naughty euphemism of their own devising. I like to imagine a few of them coining the term one night as they were slamming down beers in a pub or in a sumptuous study. I'm guessing that the originator of the term was probably John Bartram. For while you might expect a scientist to express wonder or astonishment upon seeing the plant, Bartram wrote to Collinson on 29 August 1762 that "my little tipitiwitchet sensitive stimulates laughter in all ye beholders".

Surely, surely this suggests that when Bartram would show off his plant, he did so in such a way to inspire laughter. This seems to indicate that he was showing off the plant with rude commentary!

How did modern historians disentangle this conspiracy, hundreds of years later? The truth was exposed by a reading of a letter Peter Collinson (in England) sent to Bartram. Collinson had been hoping to see plants since he had first heard of them from Arthur Dobbs (the Governor of North Carolina), three years earlier in 1759. He still hoped to get seeds from Arthur Dobbs.

Governor Arthur Dobbs
But in 1762 Collinson lost hope in Dobbs. Apparently, Dobbs (73 years old) was no longer quite so interested in things such as this plant--as remarkable as it was--because he had just gotten married to a very, very, very young girl. On 20 June, Collinson wrote a letter to Bartram describing his frustration with "my Friend Dobbs". This letter was the smoking gun that revealed all to subsequent historians:

"It is now in vain to write to him for seeds or plants of Tipitiwitchet now He has gott one of his Own to play with"

Ew! Dobb's new wife provided the old geezer with a tipitiwitchet all his own to play with. Ew! Even worse, Dobb's new wife---young Justina Davis--was only 15! Ew!

The rude interpretation of the plant was eventually translated into Latin, which commemorates both Venus (the goddess of Love and Sex!!), and also the plant's capturing capabilities. But it is important to observe that the specific name, "muscipula" does not mean flytrap. That would be "muscicapa." The Latin muscipula means mousetrap! So when Ellis chose the Latin genus and species epithets, he chose something to recall forever the notion of the love-goddess' grasping device that captures unwary little mammals. You nasty man!

I end with a postscript to this sordid tale of obsession with female genitalia, a contribution to the tale made by yours truly. In my 2006 book, Growing Carnivorous Plants, I established the cultivar name for a Venus flytrap clone that had been in circulation for many years, but which no one had ever bothered to name. It is the pure green plant, that produces no red pigmentation at all, no matter how much light it gets. I named the plant Dionaea 'Justina Davis' to pay honor to little Justina Davis, Dobb's wife: Dionaea
Dionaea 'Justina Davis'

This new cultivar name designates a bright green plant that has been in cultivation for many years. It is characterized by the complete lack of orange or red pigmentation in the leaves, even when the plant is grown in full sun. It is commonly grown with unregistered names such as "all green," "green traps," or "heterodoxa." The electric green leaves can be mistaken for fresh young traps that have not yet had time to develop pigmentation. The name 'Justina Davis' for this tipitiwitchet commemorates the wife of Arthur Dobbs, a mere 15 years old when she married the governor in 1762.

I boldly like to think that this minor but prurient contribution to this saga places me in good company with the crude botanists of prior centuries.

Page citations: Nelson, E.C., and McKinley, D.L. 1990; Rice, B.A. 2006a; personal observation.

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Revised: 2018
©Barry Rice, 2018