Carl Linnaeus, father of the modern scientific classification system, has been called a lot of things: brilliant, poetic, influential. He even earned the title “prince of botanists.”

There were those, however, that saw a different side of the man noted for naming so many wild species. His detractors called him an egoist, said he was sexist, and even suggested that he was a dirty old man. He often got his revenge, however, naming ugly weeds or insects after his enemies.

Though I won’t take sides, I will share a little-known controversy that arose over the name he gave to a certain plant — the one commonly known as pinesap, Dutchman’s pipe, false beech drops and yellow bird’s nest. It turns out Linnaeus’s scientific designation has been debated as well as his reputation.

The name he gave this plant is Monotropa hypopithys. The Monotropa part isn’t controversial; it translates to ‘once turned,’ and describes this plant’s habit of pointing all of its individual flowers in the same direction, like a puppeteer’s hand. 

Hypo means under. But under what? Linnaeus wrote “hypopithys” consistently. Pithys was the name of a wood nymph in Greek mythology. His critics suggest that Linnaeus’s intent was to make a risque reference to something “under the nymph,” perhaps meaning on the forest floor or below the beautiful sprite. 

Other sources call this flower hypopitys, without an h, on the assumption that the original name resulted from Linnaeus’s poor spelling, instead of his saucy nature. Pitys means pine or fir tree, and thus makes very good and G-rated sense to describe this plant.

Interestingly enough, internet sources generally lack the h, while books have the h. I will leave it to your frisky or not so frisky opinion.

The plant in question, pinesap, has its own special story and unique lifestyle, and yes, lives in the woods. Juleann VanBelle has them in her backyard and inquired as to their identity earlier in the week. She noticed a group of them under her pine trees and sent a photo.

Due to their color (yellow to red) and form (scaly and without foliage), most folks assume that they are a type of mushroom. They are not a fungus, though pinesap does rely on fungi. 

Pinesap is a vascular plant that survives without chlorophyll or photosynthesis. It is a saprophyte, which means that it grows and obtains nutrients from another plant. This plant has also been called a parasite since it uses fungus on the roots of a tree to obtain its food. You may be more familiar with its sister plant, Indian pipe, which has a similar look and lifestyle.

This woodland wonder blooms summer through autumn, though each season’s flowers have their own characteristics and each may even be considered its own subspecies. Juleann’s specimens were more reddish and hairy, indicating a later fall flowering. Those that bloom in the summer tend to be yellower and less hairy. 

Although these plants are generally widely distributed, they are rarely encountered. Only in Florida and Iowa are they on endangered species lists, which seems surprising, given how seldom, if ever, they are observed. 

After pinesap flowers, its capsules stand erect and can persist through the winter. Linnaeus might have come up with some other interesting names if he spent time observing their rigid winter form. Guess we are lucky that he settled on the nomenclature early, because there are some things that it’s just as well he didn’t describe any further.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.