Origins of the name "Dionaea"

From: Paul Temple (
Date: Thu Nov 04 1999 - 13:25:49 PST

Date: Thu, 04 Nov 1999 21:25:49 +0000
From: Paul Temple <>
Message-Id: <aabcdefg3704$foo@default>
Subject: Origins of the name "Dionaea"


>I always wondered about the name _Venus_ Fly Trap but even more about
>it's latin name ... (Anybody interested anyway???)

Well you are and this place exists to share knowledge - so because you
asked ...

I'm afraid the origins of the allocation of the name to Dionaea (the
derivation of the name) are muddied, to say the least.

Things appear to start with the Governor of North carolina, Arthur
Dobbs, who noticed the Dionae plants growing locally. Now let me make
clkear here, before anyone writes me, that the Native Americans knew of
Dionaea long before it was "discovered" - a word that invariably means
the first occassion on which a white european noticed something that
local people already knew about (examples being Dionaea, America,
Australia, Pyramids, etc.). But back to Dobbs, who was a keen amature
botanist - but in those days almost all scientists wre amatures. Dobbs
sent a letter including a reference to the "catch fly sensitive" to
Peter Collinson. In those days, without the benefit of email, the
letter travelled in the hands of Dobbs' son, by sea. The letter arrived
in 1759.

Collinson wrote and asked for more information. Back came a reply but
this time referring to the "Fly Trap Sensitive". Collinson now asked
his friend, John Bartram, who lived in Philidelphia, to check out the
plant. In 1760 John Brtram did but apparently he couldn't find it! But
his son then went to live at Cape Fear, met Dobbs, and was presumably
shown the plants. Because in 1762 he went home to daddy and gave him
some plants. Time passed and Bartram sent Collinson a small box of
plants and/or seeds (I dread to think how many but some descriptions say
"numerous"). But the boat on which the box travelled was captured by
Spaniards! For reasons we can not gues, the Spaniards decided to send
on the post, so collinson got his "plants/seeds". which were preserved
as pressings. Still, he was delighted. Numerous lewtters went back and
forth between Bartram and Collinson, mosty requesting seed for
Collinson. However, it wasn't until another botanist, William Young,
interceded that plants successfully travelled to the UK. Young carried
the plants in boxes filled with moss. He left the Carlinas on 13 Jan
1768 and arrived by sea in the UK on about 6 July 1768. A few plants
were included in the 600 pots he brought by sea and seed was also
included. These were made available to Solander and Collinson but
Collinson died, maybe before he saw them. Solander may have seen them,
but possibly not. But Solander wrote about the plant newly in
cultivation (new in the UK, because it was now grown in Bartram's garden
in Philidelphia). Solander called the plant Dionaea crinita. The notes
were locked in a cupboard, unpublished, while Solander went on his long

A plant in the UK now started flowering, August 1768. John Ellis heard
about it and visted it. Ellis knew Solander (they were friends) had
thought of the name Dionaea and it was Ellis who named it "muscipula",
published in The St. James's Chronicle on 1 September 1768, so formally
defining the plant's name.

The earliest known and remaining explanations (yes, plural!) of the
derivation were explained by this same Ellis, a naturalist and gardener
and Fellow of the Royal Society, in London, to which almost all famous
(and many not so famous) scientists in the UK belonged at that time (he
was also in the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and
Commerce, was a Royal Agent for West Florida, was a Colonial Agent for
Dominica, an Agent for the Irish Linen Board at Westminster, was a linen
merchant who went bankrupt and an author). His first explanation (yes,
he alone managed two different explanations - one wonders why!) was
given to and published in The St. James's Chronicle on 1 September 1768
(the year that Dionaea first arrived in the UK - "Americans" didn't yet
care too much about botany!!!). This explanations describes Solander as
naming the plant after a goddess (any goddess), because of the beautiful
milk white flowers (so obviously they wre all drunk when the saw the
flowers!) and "elegance" of the leaves. Three weeks later, the same
John Ellis wrote a letter to the fabulously famous Linnaeus.which
specifically states that the name "Dione" was given to the Venus's Fly
Trap or Tipitiwitchet (also Tippitiwitchet) because of the shape of the
leaves but it's if the shape (see quoation below) can truly explainuse
of the words or names "Dione", "Venus" or "Aphrodite" (see below).
Meanwhile, Dr Daniel Solander, another botanist who was apparently the
very first to suggest the plant be named after Dione (equivalent to
Venus, see below) never published his reasons for so naming the plant
nor has anyone ever recorded that he verbally explained his reasons to
anyone. But he did have the goddess of love on his mind (he was
preparing a voyage in which to observe the planet Venus passing accross
the front of the Sun) at exactly the time that he and John Ellis (they
were friends) were chatting about this new as yet unnamed plant.
(Solander, by the way, was one of two botanists who first visited a part
of the newly discvered Australia thus finding hundreds of incredible
plants that science had previously not seen. It was Solander's
discoveries - made withthe oh so famous Banks, that led to the
Australian area of abundant amazing plantlife being named as Botany
bay). However, returning to our friend John Ellis, in his letter to
Linnaeus he described the leaves of Dionaea as follows. A word of
caution before reading on - the letter "s" was usually replaced in old
english by the letter "f" so if you see the letter "f" it is best to
pronounce it as an "s" until you know it was not meant to be "s""!. So,
as I said, Ellis' letter included the following quote:

"The leaves are many, inlining to bend downwards, and are placed in a
circular order; they are jointed and fucculent: the lower joint, which
is a kind of ftalk, is flat, longifh, two-edged, and inclining to

Now, it is possible that this perception of the shape as "inclining to
heart-fhaped" would therefore lead to the goddess of beauty being a
logical choice of name for such a plant.

As to the references to "Dione", "Venus" or "Aphrodite" (above) - well
Dione was the mother of Aphrodite, who was the goddess of beauty. But
as time went on, Dione became more important and so Dione and Aphrodite
became merged as a single person, Dione, the goddess of beauty. All
this was Greek mythology (it's all Greek to me!!!). Then, the Romans
arrived on the scene. Just to make life easy, the Romans called
Aphrodite by a different name, Venus! So Dione, Aphrodite and Venus are
all the same person and interchangeable names. This almost explains why
all 3 names are associated with the plant but there is more. Latin
officianados may be better at explaining this than I am, but evidently
the -aea ending has a root in the Latin ending -aeus which, when applied
to a word, and when that word is assumed to be feminine,, means "a
female belonging to". Do Dionaea is probably a reference to the goddess
of love, based on the perception that the plant has heart shaped leaves
and the name Dionaea means "A female belonging to Dione" referring to
the blending of the Aphrodite legend with the Dione legend. So this
could explain why we can find the plant as Dionaea, Venus's Fly Trap and
Aphrodite's Mouse Trap!

Ah, I can hear you (and everyone) sigh now that all is clear (!) :-{.
But I have not finished!!! We have yet to explain "muscipula", and this
will no doubt make everything even clearer!

Muscipula derives from "mus" and "capio". Mus means "mouse" and capio
means "I capture", so the plant is in fact Venus's Mousetrap, not, I say
again, not flytrap (which would have to be written in Latin as
"muscaria"). John Ellis attempted to popularise the plant as Venus's
Mousetrap although he personally published both Venus's Fly Trap and
Venus's Mouse Trap as "trivial" names before anyone else did, but for
reasons we no longer know this name never became popular, so we are
stuck with the name flytrap.

>So why did they did they name fly catching plant that isn't reall
>pretty after her???

Well, as can be seen from the above, apparently there were several
reasons but this included that Solander and others apparently found the
plant beautiful.

>BTW , those people didn't know it was a CP, just tha it collected flies.

Not entirely true. The carnivorous nature was first questioned on
September 24 1768!!! This is only 23 days after the plant was first
named and published. Ellis himself posed the question and the presence
of glands on the traps had already been noted. Thereafter, although
everyone was amazed at this possibility, it was generally assumed to be
likely but science wasn't very able to actually prove carnivory. On
Sept. 23 1769, Ellis wrote to Linnaeus describing Dionaea and he said
"But the plant ...,fhews, that nature may have fome view towards its
nourifhment, in forming the upper joint of its leaf like a machine to
catch food". He then went on to descrtibe bait, attractants and
trapping. Clearly Ellis, Linnaeus and others who then talked to either
were acutely aware of the carnirous nature but they just couldn't
absolutely prove it.

Well, I'm sure all this was exceedingly clear :-}

the question is, now that you know the answer, and to paraphrase you, are you interested

One last thought. People thought that the sensitive hairs were used to
impale the poor insects that were trapped. Thank goodness no-one ever
thought that the sensitive hairs then acted like straws to extract
goodness. Oh how the descriptions would have read!!!



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