The Venus Flytrap is perhaps the most well-known carnivorous plant, but few people are familiar with the origins behind this unusual name. How did the Venus Flytrap get its name and what is the history of its discovery and development of our understanding of the fly-eating plant?
Why is the Venus Flytrap called that? The Venus Flytrap’s name has two parts. Venus represents the most beautiful Roman goddess. Early researchers saw the Venus Flytrap as resembling female genitalia and thus named the plant after the goddess of sex and love. Flytrap references the plant’s habit of trapping flies.
The Venus Flytrap is a remarkable carnivorous plant with a long and fascinating history. The plant has gone through several names and has shocked those that have studied it repeatedly over several centuries. Whether you’re an unsuspecting bug or an expert botanist, the Venus Flytrap is almost certain to surprise you.
About the Plant
The Venus Flytrap is a carnivorous plant which captures insects between a set of jaw-like leaves. When insects (or sometimes larger creatures, like frogs or mice) bump up against trigger hairs on the flytrap, it snaps shut. Once triggered, the trap can close completely within a third of a second. The prey is then trapped between a set of interlocking spines and digested over about ten days.
While for many the name Venus Flytrap conjures images of exotic and tropical locations, the Venus Flytrap is, in fact, native to the United States. Venus Flytraps can be found along the southern edge of the eastern seaboard but are most common in the marshes and bogs of the Carolinas.
Venus, Goddess of Sex and Beauty
Venus is the goddess of love, sex, beauty, passion, fertility, and prosperity. She is the Roman counterpart to the Greek Aphrodite.
Traps are somewhat built into the mythology of Venus. There are two stories which involve traps and Venus. The first comes from Homer’s The Odyssey in which Venus’ husband Hephaestus learns of an affair between Venus and Mars. Vulcan fashions a net out of gold and uses it to catch the lovers in the act and shame them in front of the other Gods.
In another story, Vulcan gives Venus’ mother, Juno, a golden throne as a gift. He offers to release Juno if she’ll allow him to marry Venus. Eventually, Juno relents, and the two are married.
In Greek and Roman mythology, Venus is often portrayed as cunning and tricky. She uses her beauty and attractiveness to trap men into doing her bidding. The naming of the Venus Flytrap similarly flips the script, portraying Venus as the trapper rather than the trapped.
The History of the Venus Flytrap
While the Venus Flytrap may have been named by some pervy 18th-century botanists, its history transcends its coarser beginnings. Since its discovery the Venus Flytrap has forced naturalists and scientists to reconsider their understanding of the natural world.
A plant that digests meat and reacts with violent speed to stimuli challenges subverts our expectations of what plants are capable of. This species has captured the imaginations of some pretty impressive and historically significant people.
It is unclear who first discovered the Venus Flytrap. However, in 1760 North Carolina colonial governor, Arthur Dobbs wrote the first recorded description of the plant in a letter.
“The great wonder of the vegetable kingdom is a very curious unknown species of Sensitive. It is a dwarf plant. The leaves are like a narrow segment of a sphere, consisting of two parts, like the cap of a spring purse, the concave part outwards, each of which falls back with indented edges (like an iron spring fox-trap); upon anything touching the leaves or falling between them, they instantly close like a spring trap, and confine any insect or anything that falls between them. It bears a white flower.”
He named the plant the Fly Trap Sensitive. A sensitive is a type of plant that responds to touch or other stimuli. Unfortunately for Dobbs, the name never stuck. In 1768, John Ellis wrote the first published description of the flytrap. With this publication, Ellis is credited with coining the name Venus Flytrap and creating the scientific designation Dionaea muscipula.
Dionaea is yet another name for Venus. Muscipula means “mousetrap,” referencing the speed with which the flytrap closes on its prey. Ellis also suggested Venus’ Mousetrap as a common name. Ellis described the rationale for naming the plant because of the beauty of its white flowers.
“…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.”
Now you may be thinking, “Oh! The plant was named after Venus because of its beautiful white flowers. There’s nothing gross about the name at all.” You’re welcome to believe this; however, most experts on the flytrap agree that this is a convenient fiction intended for a general audience to cover the botanists’ dirty joke.
The Venus Flytrap became a real curiosity for botanists, naturalists, and gardeners. The seeds were eventually sent overseas to England, and Dionaea muscipula was grown with limited success across the Atlantic.
A core group of scientists became interested in the plant and discussed it through letters amongst one another. This included:
- John Bartram
- William Bartram
- Peter Collinson
- William Darlington
- Arthur Dobbs
- John Ellis
- Daniel Solander
This group frequently referred to the plant by a nickname of their own, the Tipitiwitchet.
It was long believed that this name was derived from a Native American word for the plant. For centuries this was believed simply on basis of tradition. However, in more recent history, a linguist named Daniel McKinley attempted to track down the origins of the word Tipitiwitchet and found that it had no counterparts in any of the indigenous languages from the surrounding area.
Digging further, McKinley came to suspect that the name was a combination of two British slang terms of the era. The first being a tipit which meant “a furry collar” and a witchet which referred to a loop in a rope or a noose. McKinley concluded that the term was not of indigenous origin, but in fact a euphemism of the botanists own making. Yes, another reference to the female anatomy. The joke never got old for these guys.
If you need any more evidence that Tipitiwitchet was not a Native American word and was, in fact, a rude euphemism, you need look no further than the contexts in which the inner circle of 18th Century Venus Flytrap researchers used the word.
In 1762, John Bartram wrote to Peter Collinson about how pleased he was with his samples of the plant. He wrote,
“my little tipitiwitchet sensitive stimulates laughter in all ye beholders.”
The Venus Flytrap seems likely to inspire wonder and amazement as it snaps up and consumes flies, but laughter seems an unlikely reaction. Laughter from guests becomes a lot more understandable if the demonstration of the plant were accompanied by some inappropriate commentary. Apparently Bartram fancied himself something of a stand-up comedian.
Another example comes from a later letter between Collinson and Bartram. At 73 years old Governor Dobbs married a 15-year-old girl named Justina Davis. Around this period, Peter Collinson was trying to request seeds from Dobbs, the expert of the day in the Venus Flytrap. Dobbs had been ignoring Collinson’s requests, and so in irritation, he wrote to his friend John Bartram,
“It is now in vain to write to him for seeds or plants of Tipitiwitchet now He has got one of his own to play with”
If that isn’t proof that Tipitiwitchet was a crass euphemism, then I’m not sure what is.
The Venus Flytrap was far more than just a crude joke to the early naturalists who studied it. The Venus Flytrap called into question their entire classification of plants and animals. At the time, the major distinction used by many naturalists between plants and animals was that animals could feel while plants could not.
The sensitivity of the Venus Flytrap (and a few other mold breakers discovered in the 18th Century), challenged this definition. Here was a species that looked like a plant, it acted as a plant, but also it responded to touch, it ate meat. The flytrap also refuted early ideas of food chains and species hierarchies. The idea that a plant could eat an animal, or a creature higher on the chain, disrupted the linear ideas of how these chains worked.
The Venus Flytrap forced these naturalists to shrug off overly simple ideas of how the natural world works. They had to accept that the natural structures and relationships that they studied were more complicated and nuanced than they had previously thought. This eventually led to a more complete understanding of how ecosystems and natural relationships work and opened the door for more profound discoveries.
The discovery of the Venus Flytrap fascinated and greatly amused 18th-century botanists, but it also did much more than that. The discovery expanded them and allowed them to see the world in profound new ways.
As word of and seeds from the Venus Flytrap spread through the colonies and across Britain, it caught the attention of some truly remarkable people.
Fascinated by the descriptions of the Venus Flytrap provided to him, Thomas Jefferson spent nearly 20 years trying to get his hands on a specimen of the plant. The first recorded instance of him asking after seeds were in a letter in 1786.
The third president of the United States continued to write letters, almost yearly attempting to get one sent to him. After the first plant shipped to him died en route, he switched to asking after seeds, which he finally acquired in 1804.
Strangely, according to another letter, he didn’t plant them until five years later, in 1809. There is no recorded instance of him mentioning them again. It is presumed that he failed to grow the seeds outside the bog-like conditions of the Carolina swamps.
Erasmus Darwin was a philosopher, naturalist, and poet. Erasmus is perhaps best known as the grandfather of Charles Darwin, author of the theory of evolution. Erasmus Darwin casually slipped ideas in his poems which we now recognize as being congruous with the survival of the fittest and natural selection—ideas his grandson would greatly expand upon.
Erasmus was a man ahead of his time, and many of his waxings on these advanced ideas were inspired by the Venus Flytrap. Darwin wrote poems about Dionaea muscipula and made detailed sketches of the plant-based on the ones he grew.
Erasmus Darwin theorized that the flytraps were a defensive mechanism to protect the delicate flower from hungry insects. It seems that few naturalists at the time considered that the plant might actually be utilizing the resources acquired from their captured prey. Most believed that the plant simply allowed the insects to ferment and rot away.
It would be Erasmus’ grandson who would perform detailed experiments to reveal the true purpose behind the flytrap’s violent behavior.
Erasmus Darwin’s grandson, Charles, was similarly fascinated by the plant. Darwin was so intrigued by carnivorous plants that he wrote an entire book on the subject. As part of his research, Darwin performed the first systematic series of experiments on the flytrap. He eventually became the first to determine that the plant was digesting and using the resources gained from its carnivory.
Darwin’s research also revealed more precise details about the mechanism behind the flytraps snapping ability. Darwin noticed small hairs inside the leaves of the Venus Flytrap. He suspected that these were triggers for the snap. When he touched a single hair, the trap would sometimes fire, but not often. He found that if he touched a second hair within a few seconds of the first, the trap would always fire.
Darwin is often thought of being interested primarily in the evolutionary development of animals and birds, such as finches. However, he said of another carnivorous plant,
“I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world.”
And of the Venus flytrap itself, he wrote,
“Venus Flytrap is the most wonderful plant in the world.”
Darwin was fascinated by how carnivorous plants could have come to be. While he never came to a conclusive answer, we now have a much better idea of how Venus Flytraps developed and how they relate to other carnivorous plants.
Evolution of the Venus Flytrap
Darwin may be the most famous person to ask how the Venus Flytrap came to be, but he wasn’t the last. Into the modern era, scientists have studied, researched, and theorized about the origins of the flytrap. Through their efforts, we now know a great deal more about how these amazing plants came to be and about how evolution works generally.
As biologists began to look at carnivorous plants through the lens of evolutionary theory, many of them began to suspect that all carnivorous plants shared a common ancestor. The idea that these plants were evolutionarily linked seemed to answer how so many plant species shared this remarkable and unexpected characteristic.
However, in the late 1980s, researchers discovered that plant carnivory developed six or more times across at least five orders of plants. This means that carnivory developed in different places and at different times all across the globe.
The development of similar features by unrelated species is called convergent evolution. Convergent evolution occurs when species separated by time or distance encounter similar ecological problems or environments and develop similar strategies to overcome them. Convergent evolution explains how bats and birds each developed the ability to fly despite not sharing common ancestors.
So, what conditions drove multiple orders of plants to eat meat? The answer is that plant carnivory develops when plants are placed in environments where they struggle to get resources from the sources that plants usually pull resources from. It’s no accident that the Venus flytrap is native to the swamps of the Carolinas.
In swamps, the nitrogen that plants like the Venus Flytrap need to survive is often washed away before the plant can absorb it through their root systems. The plant uses the nitrogen from captured prey to compensate from the nitrogen it loses to its environment. Plants that are better at collecting nitrogen are more likely to survive and pass on those traits to their offspring.
The difficult conditions for plants in places like the Carolina swamps drive plants like the Venus Flytrap to get their nitrogen from insects and animals rather than from the soil.
As recently as 2009, a group of generic researchers endeavored to uncover the origins of the Venus Flytrap; they discovered that the Venus Flytrap shared common ancestry with the Sundew, another carnivorous plant which uses the sticky residue on a swirling stalk to grab prey.
While the Venus Flytrap and Sundew both use carnivory, they don’t look particularly similar or even hunt in a similar manner? So how are they related? Experts believe that they both developed from a proto-sundew.
They theorize that the Venus Flytrap first developed the ability to move slowly in order to turn the sticky globes and create a greater chance of insects becoming stuck. Next, it increased the speed at which it could detect and respond to nearby insects. Eventually, it lost its stickiness in favor of interlocking spines, allowing it to trap much larger insects and even small amphibians and mammals.
The ability to trap even marginally larger creatures allows for drastically greater gains for the plant. A creature twice as long contains eight times more biomass and nutrients than its smaller counterpart. The benefits to the plant increase exponentially as its able to hunt larger and larger prey. Snap-traps like the Venus Flytrap, developed to capitalize on these increasing gains.
In 2013, researchers discovered that some varieties of Venus Flytrap do much more than passively wait for prey to approach their traps. These varieties emit ultraviolet light, visible to insects to lure prey into their traps before snapping shut.
Venus Flytraps aren’t always patient hunters, some of them actively lure in their targets.
Contributions of the Venus Flytrap
Centuries ago, the Venus Flytrap challenged conventional wisdom about the natural world and forced experts to reexamine what they thought they knew. This reexamination led to a more precise understanding of how plants and animal’s function.
In modern times, the Venus Flytrap is still informing how we understand the development of species. By studying the Venus Flytrap and other carnivorous plants like it, we can understand how evolution has furnished us with plants that do things that seem impossible for plants to do.
Venus Flytraps in Pop Culture
Venus Flytraps have confused and challenged scientists for centuries, but they also spark the imaginations of all kinds of people. Even hundreds of years after its discovery, the idea of a meat-eating plant is unnerving for a lot of people.
For this reason, Venus Flytrap-inspired characters have appeared in various pop culture hits. These characters affect how people think about Venus Flytraps now and how they will be considered by future generations.
Audrey II is perhaps the most famous example of a meat-eating plant. In 1986, a film named Little Shop of Horrors introduced American audiences to a killer plant that started small but grew larger as it fed on human flesh.
The parallel to the Venus Flytrap is evident. It’s fascinating how evident the anxiety over a plant that could eat meat was, even as late as 1986. If a plant can eat a fly, then why couldn’t one eat one of us? Venus Flytraps are not dangerous to people, but clearly the concern was there.
Dating back to the original Super Mario Bros., Piranha Plant has been a staple antagonist of the Mario video game series. Piranha plants typically grow out of pipes and will attempt to bite or swallow Mario when he comes near.
While the Piranha Plant perhaps better resembles a pitcher plant, its swift movements and snapping jaws are immediately reminiscent of the Venus Flytrap. Even more directly, the flame-throwing variety of Piranha plants are known as Venus Fire Traps.
The pet plant of the Addams family most resembles a Venus Flytrap in appearance. Cleopatra has a set of interlocking teeth, like a real Venus Flytrap, though not as many.
The pet plant made the perfect spooky addition to the Addams family’s Halloween aesthetic.
The Venus Flytrap has inspired generations of remarkable people, for better and for worse. Unfortunately, this remarkable plant is slowly being lost to poaching and development. The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List criteria lists the Venus flytrap as vulnerable.
Because of its remarkable abilities, the Venus Flytrap is highly sought after by gardeners and enthusiasts. Because it is notoriously difficult to grow from seeds, some people try to dig the plant up in its native habitat and then sell them. The plant became protected by North Carolina in 1956, and it became a felony to dig them up under North Carolina law in 2014. Nevertheless, it is estimated that a million or more Venus Flytraps are poached and sold in the US every year.
While poaching is a big problem, development is even bigger. A 2005 survey reported that 70% of previously recorded habitats for Venus Flytraps had been replaced by parking lots or golf courses. As communities grow into spaces where the flytrap used to grow, there are fewer and fewer places where the specific set of conditions for naturally growing Venus Flytraps can be met.
Hopefully, the history of the Venus Flytrap isn’t coming to a close. Greater conservation efforts are needed to protect this astonishing plant for future generations. If you are considering purchasing a Venus Flytrap, make sure your source is reputable and legal. Meat-eating plants may seem fearsome, but they’re helpless against human destruction and need our help.
Contrary to some narratives to the contrary, most evidence suggests that the Venus Flytrap was named for its resemblance of female genitalia. The plant has gone by many names, and this is true for nearly all of them.
Since its discovery, the Venus Flytrap has repeatedly forced its observers to challenge their ideas about the natural world and reexamine what plants can and cannot do. A plant that actively hunts has ignited the imaginations of scientists and creative storytellers for hundreds of years.
In recent years, populations of Venus Flytrap that grow naturally in the Carolina swamps have been decimated by poaching and development. It is crucial that these plants be protected and preserved so that they can be enjoyed for another 200 years.
In the introduction to his essay which included the first published description of Venus Flytraps, John Ellis wrote,
“I know that every discovery in nature is a treat to you, but in this you will have a feast”
Certainly discovering and learning more about a plant as unbelievable as the Venus Flytrap is a feast like no other.