The Weird Medieval Myth Of The Vegetable Lamb

“I came upon passages of old authors which convinced me that these toy “lambs” made from ferns by the Chinese had no more connexion with the story of “The Vegetable Lamb” than the artificial mermaids so cleverly constructed by the Japanese were the cause and origin of the ancient and world-wide belief in mermaids.” —Henry Lee, The Vegetable Lamb or Tartary

In A Nutshell

At a time when maps still bore depictions of sea monsters, the world’s scientists, explorers, and monks alike were arguing over the vegetable lamb. And they weren’t arguing over whether or not this mythical beast existed, but whether it should be considered a plant, an animal, or both. The lamb, grown from a plant and forever tethered to it by a long stem that attached to its belly, was the subject of expedition after expedition. Sadly, none were ever found.

The Whole Bushel

In a time when sea monsters and unicorns were thought to be very, very, very real (if not elusive), there’s one beast in particular that seems well beyond the scale of plausibility. Yet people certainly thought the vegetable lamb existed.

The vegetable lamb was just that: part vegetable, part lamb. According to the stories, it was a lamb that grew from a plant and was permanently attached by a stem that was attached to the lamb’s belly. The lamb could only wander as far as the stem would let him go, and if the stem was ever broken or he ate all the surrounding vegetation, he would immediately die.

Also called the Lamb of Tartary, the Borometz or the Scythian Lamb, it was said that the vegetable lamb plant would reproduce its wooly offspring in seed pods that would burst open when the lamb was mature. The lamb itself was said to have all the skin and bones and muscles and blood of a regular lamb that was born of regular, boring old sheep. Supposedly, their flesh was the most exquisitely tasting, and their wool was the purest white.

The first mention of this plant-animal hybrid idea was in the Talmud, which presented the idea of a human tied to the mountains in the same way the vegetable lamb was tethered to his plant. It was also mentioned in the Bible, where it was called Jedua.

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Starting in the 1500s, explorers started to scour the world for confirmation that such a creature existed. And, according to some, they found it. In 1527, the Baron von Herberstein wrote that he had found a vegetable lamb in Russia and had been surprised to see it as he’d thought that they actually didn’t exist. It was mentioned in an official, scientifically accepted treatise on early plant biology, it was described in the journals of explorers . . . although no one had brought back a living, breathing example of this delicate creature.

As late as 1712, there were still people journeying into the Near and Far East with the purpose of confirming the existence of the vegetable lamb. Sadly, no one had any luck. There was even a book written about the elusive beast, the 1887 book The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant. Arguments were had over whether the creature should be classified as a plant, an animal, or both. Some said they needed to just cut open a specimen to see what was on the inside, and use that to classify the creature.

Eventually, Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum, received a specimen that was supposedly a real example of a vegetable lamb. Unfortunately, upon closer examination it was found to be a peculiarly (and artificially) shaped fern that had been designed to look like a lamb. Another theory on why the idea had gone from religious symbolism to real-life vegetable lamb came from reports of the cotton plant, which had pods that bore a type of wool. There was also a type of furry-looking New Zealand fern that the native people would bake and eat as through it were the flesh of an animal.

The similarities were enough to the stories were the leap of logic could be made . . . even if it was a leap off a cliff.

Show Me The Proof

Scientific American: Animal or Vegetable? Legend of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary
National Agricultural Library, Probe, Volume 2: Legend of the Lamb-Plant
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, by Henry Lee

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