On the Origin of Species: Bulbasaur, Ivysaur, and Venusaur
For 2021’s Pokémon Day, the series’ 25th anniversary, we’ll take a look at the very first Pokémon listed in the National Pokédex. Some would say this guy’s the most underrated Kanto Starter, but for Bulbagarden, Bulbasaur is always number one.
As a wee lad who absorbed every bit of Pokémon media he could in the late 1990’s, I distinctly remember Tracy West’s novelizations of the anime describing Bulbasaur as “dinosaur-like”. It made sense to me at the time: after all, I knew what dinosaurs looked like and Bulbasaur didn’t match any other animal I recognized. Alas, I was wrong.
Despite Bulbasaur, Ivysaur, and Venusaur all having “saur” (Greek for “lizard”) at the end of their names, they aren’t based on reptiles. Instead, they’re designed around frogs & toads, which are amphibians. The word “amphibian” comes from an Ancient Greek phrase meaning “both kinds of life”, referring to creatures who can live both in and out of water. But Bulbasaur is a Grass-type; the Water typing went to Squirtle.
Let’s fast-forward a bit to illustrate my point a little better and examine Venusaur. We’ll get to the flower on its back eventually, but for now I’d like to focus on Venusaur’s overall build. Venusaur has a large, round snout with a wide mouth. Its eyes are placed far apart from each other. Its skin is bumpy, almost wart-like. In the Let’s Go series, if you have Venusaur following behind you, it hops instead of walking. Certainly says “toad” more than “lizard”, doesn’t it?
That said, Game Freak took liberties, as they do. Bulbasaur and its kin have clawed toes on their feet, which amphibians lack. Well, kind of. There’s a frog from Central Africa called the “hairy frog” (Trichobatrachus robustus), named for the hair-like skin structures on its legs, but as Bulbasaur is hairless, that’s not the comparison I’m trying to make. The hairy frog is also called the “horror frog” or, more aptly, the “Wolverine frog” because it has retractable claws. When threatened, the hairy frog intentionally breaks its own toes, projecting keratinous claws. Afterwards the claws “retract” as the skin heals over them. It’s argued that these claws also give the frog a better grip on rocks, but regardless of how the frog uses these claws, it’s pretty cool (if not slightly creepy).
By the by, Bulbasaur’s Poison typing likely doesn’t relate to the plant on its back. Some toads, like the common toad (Bufo bufo) and the Colorado River toad (Incilius alvarius), can secrete toxins from parotoid glands on their back which are potent enough to kill grown dogs. These toxins serve as the toad’s primary defense against predators, and even cause hallucinogenic effects when vaporized and inhaled. While chasing the high produced by these toxins, people have become poisoned and even killed.
Some fans may argue that Bulbasaur is based on Beezlebufo ampinga, a massive prehistoric frog from Cretaceous Madagascar. Referred to as “the frog from Hell”, Beezlebufo had an expansive mouth (its skull is about 15 cm wide) that basically gave it free reign to eat anything it could fit inside. Scientists estimate Beezlebufo’s bite force could have been between 500 to 2200 Newtons, providing little wonder why it was named after the Lord of the Flies. First discovered in 1993, Beezlebufo wasn’t officially announced until 2008, rendering it inapplicable as Bulbasaur’s great-great-great-grandfather.
That said, there is a prehistoric animal that may be inspired by Bulbasaur. Described in 2017, Bulbasaurus phylloxyron (“bulbous reptile leaf razor”), is an extinct dicynodont (“two dog tooth”) that lived in South Africa during the mid-Permian Period about 272.3 million years ago. Dicynodonts are a taxon of therapsids, a group that includes mammals and their ancestors. Bulbasaurus was named after its nasal bosses and keratin-coated jaws, though the discoverer noted that “if one wished to read between the lines concerning certain similarities, I wouldn’t stop them” and “similarities between this species and certain other squat, tusked quadrupeds may not be entirely coincidental”.
As Bulbasaur evolves into Ivysaur and Venusaur, the bulb on its back grows into a bud, then finally a large, open flower resembling those of the genus Rafflesia. Rafflesia are parasitic plants that infect Tetrastigma vines, with only their large, red flower visible. If this sounds familiar, Vileplume is another Pokémon based on the Rafflesia, albeit more directly. Thinking back to Bulbasaur’s Pokédex entries, the flower seed is planted on its back at birth, which matches the Rafflesia’s parasitic nature. At least Bulbasaur gets energy from the plant, as well, or we’d have another Paras situation on our hands.
Game Freak has noted that Starter Pokémon often to take the longest to design as they want the Starters to appeal to every culture. However, sources conflict on whether Ivysaur or Venusaur came first. Ken Sugimori, an illustrator for the Pokémon series, explained in an interview that Atsuko Nishida designed Bulbasaur & the other Kanto starters “by working backwards from their final forms”. This implies that Venusaur came first, being Bulbasaur’s final evolution stage. In the original pitch for Pokémon (called Capsule Monsters at the time), a creature resembling Venusaur can be seen. This creature is unnamed but has an open flower – like Venusaur – but its lower half is more akin to Ivysaur. It also shares the same Index Number with Ivysaur in the final game, but unless Game Freak is willing to explain, the world may never know.
Game Freak seem to like making Bulbasaur a mystery. Looking at the Japanese names for its family leads to some interesting puns. Bulbasaur is Fushigidane (フシギダネ), a combination of 不思議な fushigina (“strange”, “mysterious”) and 種 tane (“seed”). Reading the characters literally, however, makes it sound like you’re asking, “Strange, isn’t it?” (fushigi, da ne?) The same applies to Ivysaur, whose Japanese name is Fushigiso (フシギバナ), which can be either “Strange grass” or “it seems strange” depending on how you stress the last syllable. Venusaur is Fushigibana (フシギバナ), merging “fushigi” with 花 hana (“flower”), so “strange flower”.
These Pokémon can be rather strange when you think about it. They’re based on amphibians but lack a Water-typing and are named as reptiles, they’re a mix of flora and fauna, and even their Japanese names are unsure of what these Pokémon actually are. One thing’s for sure, though: despite all this, Bulbasaur is remembered fondly as a loyal partner who helped those starting Trainers explore Kanto back in 1996. Happy birthday, Bulbasaur, and thank you for everything.