Nature lovers and scientific admirers alike often look up to the botanists who have discovered new plants and coined the names we use today.
However, just because these individuals have managed to make scientific and exploratory breakthroughs in the botanical world doesn’t mean they did not have a sense of humor to go along with it.
You might be surprised to learn that the Venus Flytrap does not have such an innocent name as many people have been led to believe in recent years. In this article, HerbSpeak dives into the sheepishly dirty and downright lewd origin of the Venus Flytrap’s name.
The Innocent Myth
There is an innocent and comfortable story for why the Venus flytrap is named as such, and the first record of this story came out in an edition of the London Magazine published in 1768. (1) This plant was recorded under an article titled “A New Sensitive Plant Discovered.”
The man who wrote this article, John Ellis, was a notable British naturalist who specialized in the study of corals. He kept in correspondence with many botanists of the day including Carl Linnaeus, who is said to have been the father of modern taxonomy, having formalized the modern taxonomy for biologists and botanists alike.
“[…] and from the beautiful appearance of it’s 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.”
Ellis also exported many native plants and native seeds from North America to England, which may have had much to do with his renown as an expert on these plants, though royal botanist William Young first imported the flytrap to England and showed John Ellis the specimen. Ellis is credited for initially giving Dionaea muscipula its Latin name.
In the 1768 article in the London Magazine, Ellis went on to talk about the struggles of naming the plant and how Dionaea muscipula may be translated into either Venus flytrap or Venus mousetrap, though he much preferred to call it flytrap.
There is one thing that is missing from this story, however.
This account of the flytrap was first published in 1768, yet the first written correspondence regarding the flytrap’s discovery was found in April of 1759 between a North Carolina colonial governor, Arthur Dobbs, and English botanist Peter Collinson.
What happened in those nine years between its discovery and its naming?
The Dirty Secret
In those nine years between the time when John Ellis published his article officially naming the flytrap and the discovery of the plant, a dirty joke was had by several naturalists.
On April 2nd, 1759, North Carolina governor Arthur Dobbs penned a letter to his friend, an English naturalist by the name of Peter Collinson, about the discovery of the flytrap. (2) These were the first words written about the flytrap on record. Dobbs wrote the following:
“We have a kind of Catch Fly sensitive which closes upon anything that touches it, it grows in the Latitude 34 but not 35° – I will try to save the seed here.”
Soon after seeing the flytrap, Englishman Peter Collinson wrote Philadelphia naturalist John Bartram about the plant, informing him of the new discovery. Bartram’s son, William Bartram, was sent to North Carolina for a time to retrieve a plant and bring it back to his father for further study.
William Bartram was welcomed into Dobbs’ home in Wilmington, North Carolina for a short time and the two went on an expedition to find a suitable specimen of this plant to bring back. The father and son duo would go on to be the first to cultivate the flytrap outside of its native habitat range – which only extends about 70 miles – and begin growing specimens for study.
These study specimens were able to be dried and sent to Peter Collinson for study, which was then provided to John Ellis and Carl Linnaeus; however, no one was able to send a live specimen, nor were they able to collect seeds to send across the pond at this time.
Throughout their correspondence, this small group of naturalists would begin referring to this plant as a “tipitiwitchet” or “tippity twitchet.” These terms were slang for a woman’s genitalia.
On one hand, really, could you blame them?
While there is no clear evidence of who came up with the term originally between the five naturalists, many assume that it was Bartram. At least, he was the one who humorously presented the name that, to the mind’s eye, reduced these grown men to giggling little kids on occasion.
In August of 1962, Bartram wrote to Collinson a letter which included the following:
“my little tipitiwitchet sensitive stimulates laughter in all ye beholders”
So, the man was describing this plant and showing it off in a humorous way. But why would grown men laugh at such a plant?
Simply because we all have a bit of a lewd sense of humor at heart. There’s no way around that one.
Unfortunately, not all of their correspondence can be documented, especially that which was done in person, so how can modern historians be so certain that this name was created on purpose for perverted jokes?
Because there is more…
Further Lewd Correspondence
While the name Venus flytrap was a joke worthy of the plant, the playful giggles between grown men did not end there. (3) Up until this point in history, a lot of the correspondence could be dismissed as misinterpreted meaning.
After all, the English language has shifted and evolved so much in the past two hundred years, and as a society, culture itself has shifted. Their meaning could have just been misinterpreted by modern historians, right?
Not so much.
There was further correspondence between Arthur Dobbs and Peter Collinson in June of 1762 which revealed that these botanists and naturalists were, indeed, making one very long, historically noted sex joke:
“Peter Collinson wrote with playful exaggeration that “I am ready to Bust with Desire for Root, Seed, or Specimen of the Wagish Tipitiwitchet Sensitive.” He hoped to obtain a Dionaea from botanist and North Carolina Governor Arthur Dobbs. But seventy-three-year-old Dobbs had taken a fifteen-year-old bride, causing Collinson to abandon hope, as the old man had a “Tipitiwichit…of his Own to play with.”
Lewd? Definitely. Gross? Even more so.
The North Carolina governor had found himself infatuated with a girl who would later be his second wife. (4) He married the girl, Justina Davis, when he was seventy-three and she was fifteen. She would later go on to bear three children with him.
There is a cultivar of flytrap which is said to have been named after the young wife. This cultivar is pure green in coloration, never producing a shade of pink or red inside the lobes even well into maturity to give it a youthful appearance.
Look… Everyone wants a plant named after them, but no one wants a plant named after them for that.
So, there we have it – Dionaea muscipula in all of its lewd glory.
It is assumed that the name Dionaea muscipula is, while able to be easily covered by a PG-13 veil, also a nod to the plant’s lewd naming schemes thus far. Dionaea is the Greek goddess of love and beauty, a counterpart to the roman Venus who was the goddess of love, sex, beauty, and fertility.
Likewise, the Latin muscipula can be translated into either flytrap or mousetrap. Your imagination can do the rest for the latter translation – it’s no wonder why John Ellis established a known preference for the flytrap translation in his poetic origin story.
- John Ellis, The London Magazine, https://books.google.com/books?id=xPoRAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA523
- NC DNCR, Venus Flytrap—Dobbs’ “Catch Fly”, https://www.ncdcr.gov/blog/2017/04/21/venus-flytrap-dobbs-catch-fly
- Thomas Hallock, Male Pleasure and the Genders of Eighteenth-Century Botanic Exchange: A Garden Tour, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3491445
- Jacquelin Drane Nash, Davis Justina, https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/davis-justina