What if I told you there was a plant, beloved the world over, that only grows in a small sliver of the United States? And I mean small: this plant’s range only extends 100 miles from the southern bit of North Carolina to the northern tip of South Carolina. Of course that is it’s natural range. Now this plant can be seen the world over growing in botanic gardens or cultivated by collectors. And all because it eats a little meat…
Of course I am talking about the famous Venus Flytrap. Discovered in the 18th century, the plant became a instant treasure of the colonies, beguiling curious collectors of all types: from the farmers of the new world all the way to the Queen of England. It was first described by Governor of North Carolina Author Dobbs in a letter to English botanist Peter Collinson dated April 2, 1759. In it, he commented that:
We have a kind of Catch Fly Sensitive which closes upon any thing that touches it. It grows in Latitude 34 but not in 35. I will try to save the seed here.
Dobbs then welcomed Philadelphia plant collector William Bartram to his home to examine this new curious plant. William brought specimens home to his father, the famous botanist (and fellow friend of Peter Collinson) John Bartram. The Batrams were immediately smitten with the plant. They were the first to successfully cultivate the plant outside of its native range in their greenhouses along the Schuylkill River. John is credited with sending the first herbarium specimens of the plant to Peter Collinson for study. Collinson, in turn, provided the specimens to fellow botanists including John Ellis and later, Linnaeus.
But no one at this point had been able to collect seeds to send to Collinson in England. Remember this fact, it will become important later.
Ok, now it’s time to get down to the really raunchy stuff!
I have spoken briefly before about Linnaeus and friends and the names they have bestowed on the botanical world. You see, because we still use the Linnaean system when talking about different species most of the names he and his pals gave plants when they were first discovered in the 1700s are the names we use today. The Venus flytrap is one such name. Now, I’m willing to bet that you’ve known the name of this plant since you were a child. Maybe you thought it was a funny name for a plant, but as soon as you saw those modified leaves snap shut on a poor unsuspecting bug any questions you had flew right out of your head. Of course it is called a Venus Flytrap. It. Eats. Flies. Venus be damned.
But take a moment and think about that name again. Just think about it. Now take another look:
Here is something I can promise you. It’s not called “Venus” because it’s so pretty… it’s because our founding fathers (and founding botanists) were a bunch of pervs.
You see, while the Latin name does reflect it’s current nomenclature more or less (Dionaea muscipula translates to Daughter of Dione [that's Aphrodite] and mousetrap. Yes, mousetrap….) the early colonists had a pet name of their own for this particular plant: Tipitiwitchet.
The name Tipitiwitchet was probably coined by John Bartram. He was a very good friend of that cunning linguist Ben Franklin and we all know that Ben would certainly keep company with those who understood and could compete with his brand of wit. In 1762, Bartram wrote to Collinson:
my little tipitiwitchet sensitive stimulates laughter in all ye beholders
Laughter eh? What exactly are you doing with that plant that makes your pals erupt in laughter? As Barry Rice of the International Carnivorous Plant Society speculates:
This seems to indicate that he was showing off the plant with rude commentary!
(I won’t lie, sometimes when I’m in the historic Bartram house I can’t help but think about what a fraternity it must have been in there and what a saint Bartram’s wife Ann must have been. But who knows, maybe she was just one of the boys. She had 9 children with John so obviously she was no prude).
But the truly dirty comment comes from our friend Peter Collinson back in England. Remember how he has been waiting for Governor Dobbs to send him the promised seeds? Well, after three years Collinson got fed up with waiting and sent a letter to John Bartram saying as much. You see, Dobbs, now 73, had just taken himself a bride. A rather young one named Justina. Fifteen years young, in fact. And in his letter to Bartram on June 20, 1762, Collinson says of his undelivered seeds:
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
First of all, ew. Secondly, while older men tended to marry younger women at this time, this age difference was still quite abnormal. I imagine there is a wink and a nod tucked in there for Governor Dobbs, even if Collinson is lacking his Flytrap seeds.
So there you have it: a rare and unique plant from the American colonies reminded a bunch of naturalists of a vagina and the name persists much to the delight of children everywhere who like to feed bits of hamburger to their pet plants.
It makes you wonder what the founding fathers would have done with the idea of Audrey II.