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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, illustration from Lee, H., 1887.
The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton
Plant, to Which is Added a Sketch of the History of Cotton and
the Cotton Trade.  
S. Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London.

Medieval Europe subscribed to beliefs in many legendary creatures, unicorns being a prime example, although that myth began in ancient Greece.  Most of these critters were born from hearsay and a lack of knowledge of foreign places.  One such creature was the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, a zoophyte from Central Asia that grew sheep from its stem.

Illustration from Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch's picture book for children,
circa late 1700s.  Clockwise it features a Basilisk, a Roc, a Phoenix, a Dragon,
the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, and a Unicorn.
Close-up of the above illustration - "Das Boramez, oder Scythische Lamm".

A "zoophyte" is an animal that looks like a plant, common in medieval and renaissance herbals.  They were often found in early medical texts, and are examples of explanations explaining the origins of unknown plants.  These continued into the 17th century and were commented on by many scholars of the time, including Francis Bacon.  Claims of zoophytes began to be refuted by 1646, and skepticism increased in the 17th and 18th centuries.

1605 illustration by Claude Duret of Moulins from Histoire Admirable des Plantes.

The plant-born sheep of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary were claimed to be connected to the plant through an "umbilical cord", which was supple and allowed the sheep to graze on the vegetation surrounding the plant.  Once all the vegetation was consumed, the sheep died.  These plants were said to grow from seeds that looked like melon seeds but rounder.  The sheep, or lamb, was believed to have blood, bones, and a crab-like flesh, which could be eaten.  The blood supposedly tasted like honey.  The "wool" was used by the local people to make cloth.  Wolves and other animals were attracted to it.

This illustration is from the 1350 book The Travels of Sir John Mandeville,
first written in Anglo-Norman French, and translated.  Mandeville is the
pseudonym for an unknown compiler of the book, which was very popular
and influential in its time.  Columbus had a copy.  This is what the plant was
thought to look like, although other illustrations show only one lamb per plant.

It may have been an explanation of cotton - that fiber unknown to Europeans except by trade, who had no notion of how it was produced from a plant.  Since cotton is white and fluffy, similar to wool, it's easy to see where the sheep-plant idea arose.  But there is actually a plant that produces something that could vaguely resemble a sheep or lamp.  The Cibotium barometz is a fern of the genus Cibotium.  (Cibotium comes from the Greek "kibotion", a small box used to hold medicines).  It is also known as the Scythian Lamb or Barometz (Tartar for lamb). This tree fern is native today to parts of China, where it is known as Golden Hair Dog Fern, and the western Malay Peninsula.  It can grow to the height of 3'3" tall when erect, but is often prostrate and spreads on open forest slopes.  The fronds grow up to 10' long.  It is collected in Southeast Asia and is in serious decline.  It is used in folk medicines; it is believed to replenish the liver and kidney, and strengthen bones and muscles.

An 1878 depiction of a cotton plant.  Ebers, Georg,
Egypt: Descriptive, Historical, and Picturesquem,
Vol. I.  Cassell & Company, Ltd., New York.

As early as 436 CE, there is a similar plant mentioned in Jewish folklore.  The Yeduah was a lamb-like creature that sprouted from a stem from the earth.  The Yeduah could only be severed from its stem with darts or arrows.  When it died its bones were used for divination.  Another legend is of the Faduah, a human-shaped zoophyte also connected to the earth by a stem from its navel.  This plant would kill anything that got too close, and also died when severed from its stem.

Frontispiece of John Parkinson's Paradisi in Sole Paradisus
Terrestris: Or a Garden of All Sorts of Pleasant Flowers
which our English Ayre will Permitt to be Noursed Vp.
With a Kitchen Garden of All Manner of Herbes, Rootes, &
Fruites, for Meate or Sause Vsed with Vs, and an Orchard of
All Sorte of Fruitbearing Trees and Shrubbes Fit for Our Land.
Together with the Right Orderinge, Planting & Preserving of
Them and Their Uses and Vertues Collected by John Parkinson
Apothecary of London.
  London: Printed by Hvumfrey Lownes and
Robert Yovng at the Signe of the Starre on Bread-Street.  1629.
Adam and Eve are in Paradise.  The plant is by the river above Adam.

Many searched to find this rumored plant.  It was debated by philosophers, written about in literature, and discussed all over Europe.  Besides the aforementioned Sir John Mandeville of the 14th century,  in 1549 Sigismund, Baron von Herberstein wrote a detailed account of it in Rerum Muscoviticarum Commentarii ("Notes on Russia").  Although he never found it, he claimed he heard too many reports of it for it not to be true, and said it could be found near the Caspian Sea.

A more accurate depiction of the fronds, but the sheep are still
around the plant.  From the Svenska Familj-Journalen, Vol. 18, 1879.

Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician and scholar, went to Persia in 1683 intent on finding it.  Since he was unsuccessful, he concluded it was a legend.  He did offer an explanation however, as he had observed the custom of removing a lamb from its mother's womb in order to get the soft wool, and thought this fetal wool could be mistaken for something from a plant.  Diderot included an entry on it in his Encyclopedia, although some see this as a criticism of blind religious belief and a call to view all phenomena scientifically.

A preserved sample under glass at the Garden Museum, London.
The plant today.  Image courtesywww.forestferns.co.uk.

This is a fascinating example of how humans, educated scholars even, explained the unknown.  Today, with photographic media and the internet, any curious person can research something they are unfamiliar with.  However, we humans seem to have a penchant for mystery and the impossible.  What common legends do we still subscribe to?

Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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