Half plant, half animal, the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary stems from the Middle Ages-a traveller’s interesting tale from the Far East.
The plant was called Planta Tartarica Barometz-the latter word barometz being the Tartar name for lamb.
According to legend, the fruit of this animal-tree was cotton. However, travelers from Europe knew nothing about cotton, and mistook it for wool- a fabric they were familiar with.
They reasoned that wool came from sheep. So arose the legend of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.
And so, it was believed that the cotton was actually the fleece of the lambs growing from the tree or attached to it by their navels!
It was said that the plant bent to let the lambs graze and then when they had eaten enough, the lambs and the plant died.
DESCRIPTIONS AND SIMILAR LEGENDS
In his book, The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary (1887), Henry Lee describes the legendary lamb as believed to be both a true animal and a living plant.
However, he clearly stated that while some writers believed the lamb to be the fruit of a plant, that sprouted forward from gourd or melon-like seeds, others took a different approach, by believing that the lamb was actually a living member of the plant, and if separated from the plant, would perish. The vegetable lamb was believed to have blood, bones, and flesh just like that of a normal lamb. It was connected to the earth by a stem, similar to an umbilical cord, that propped the lamb up above ground. The cord could flex downward, allowing the lamb to feed on the grass and plants surrounding it. Once all surrounding plants were eaten, the lamb died. Furthermore, the lamb could be eaten after it died and its blood supposedly tasted sweet-as sweet as honey. Its wool was said to be used by people of its homeland to cover their heads and make other clothing articles. Other than humans, the only carnivores animals attracted to the lamb plants were wolves.
Jewish folklore mentions a similar zoophyte. This creature, called the Yeduah had the form of a lamb, and sprouted from the earth connected to a stem. Those who went hunting for it could harvest it. But in order to do so, they were required to shoot arrows or darts, to sever the creature from its stem. Once separated, it died and the bones could be used in divination or prophetic ceremonies and rituals.
An alternative version of the legend tells a human-shaped plant-animal connected to the earth from a stem attached to its navel. This legendary zoophyte, the Faduah was thought to be very aggressive, grabbing and killing any creature that came too close. Just like Yeduah, the Faduah died once it was separated from the stem.
The Italian Minorite Friar Odoric of Pordenone, upon recalling first hearing of the vegetable lamb, told of trees on the shore of the Irish Sea with gourd-like fruits that fell into the water and became birds called Bernacles. He is referring to the legendary plant-animal, the barnacle tree. This tree was believed to drop its ripened fruit into the sea near the Orkney Islands. The ripened fruit would then release “barnacle geese” that would live in the water, becoming mature geese. The alleged existence of this fellow plant-animal was even accepted as an explanation for migrating geese from the North.
E’en round the Pole the flames of love aspire,
And icy bosoms feel the secret fire,
Cradled in snow, and fanned by Arctic air,
Shines, gentle borametz, thy golden hair
Rooted in earth, each cloven foot descends,
And round and round her flexile neck she bends,
Crops the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,
Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime;
Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,
And seems to bleat – a vegetable lamb
– Dr. Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden (1781)
In his work The Shui-yang or Watersheep and The Agnus Scythicus or Vegetable Lamb (1892), Gustav Schlegel points to Chinese legends of the “watersheep” as inspiration for the legend of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary. Much like the vegetable lamb, the watersheep was believed to be both plant and animal and tales of its existence placed it near Persia. It was connected to the ground by a stem and, if the stem were severed, it would die. The animal was protected from aggressors by an enclosure built around it and by armored men yelling and beating drums. Its wool was also said to be used for fine clothing and headdresses. And just like the Barnacle tree, the origin of watersheep was used to explain sea silk.
The credit for bringing the legend to public attention in England goes to Sir John Mandeville, who did so during the reign of King Edward III in the 14th century. He returned from Tartary and described the strange gourd-like fruit grown there. Once ripe, the fruit was cut open, revealing what looked like a lamb in flesh and blood but lacking wool. The fruit and the lamb were edible, according to him.
Much like Mandeville, Friar Odoric of Fruili travelled extensively and claimed to have heard of gourds in Persia, that when ripe, opened to reveal lamb-like beasts.
In the mid-16th century, Sigismund Baron von Herberstein, who in 1517 and 1526 was the Ambassador to the Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V, presented a much more detailed account of the Barometz in his “Notes on Russia.”
He claimed to have heard from too many credible sources to doubt the lamb’s existence and gave the location of the creature as being near the Caspian Sea, between the Jaick and Volga rivers. The creature grown from the melon-like seeds described was said to grow to two and half feet high (80 cm), resembling a lamb in most ways except a few. It was said to have blood, but not true flesh as it more closely resembled that of a crab. Unlike a normal lamb, its hooves were said to be made of parted hair. It was said to be the favourite food of wolves and other animals.
The German scholar and physician Engelbert Kaempfer accompanied an embassy to Persia in 1683 with the intention of locating the lamb. After speaking with native inhabitants and finding no physical evidence of the lamb-plant, Kaempfer concluded it to be nothing but legend.However, he observed the custom of removing an unborn lamb from its mother’s womb in order to harvest the soft wool and believed the practice to be a possible source of the legend. He speculated further that museum specimens of the fetal wool could be mistaken for a vegetable substance.
But with true beasts, fast in the ground still sticking
Feeding on grass, and th’ airy moisture licking,
Such as those Borametz in Scythia bred
Of slender seeds, and with green fodder fed;
Although their bodies, noses, mouths, and eyes,
Of new-yeaned lambs have full the form and guise,
And should be very lambs, save that for foot
Within the ground they fix a living root
Which at their navel grows, and dies that day
That they have browzed the neighboring grass away.
Oh! Wondrous nature of God only good,
The beast hath root, the plant hath flesh and blood.
The nimble plant can turn it to and fro,
The nummed beast can neither stir nor goe,
The plant is leafless, branchless, void of fruit,
The beast is lustless, sexless, fireless, mute:
The plant with plants his hungry paunch doth feede,
Th’ admired beast is sowen a slender seed.
-Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas writes of the vegetable lamb in his poem La Semaine (1587). In the poem, Adam wanders the Garden of Eden and is amazed by the peculiarity of the creature. (Translated by Joshua Sylvester)
For in his path he sees a monstrous birth,
The Borametz arises from the earth
Upon a stalk is fixed a living brute,
A rooted plant bears quadruped for fruit,
…It is an animal that sleeps by day
And wakes at night, though rooted in the ground,
To feed on grass within its reach around.
– Dr. De la Croix, Connubia Florum, Latino Carmine Demonstrata (1791)