Feeding on grass, and th'airy moisture licking
Such as those Borometz of 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 browsed the neighbouring grass away.
Guillaume de Salustre du Bartas – La Semaine
For many centuries, naturalists seriously believed that a small fleecy creature originated from a truly extraordinary plant's fruit, and was therefore a unique fusion of zoology and botany. Hence its name – the vegetable lamb.
The most extensive modern-day documentation of the vegetable lamb, also known as the barometz or borometz, can be found in Jan Bondeson's fascinating book The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History (1999). In it, he reveals that lore relating to lambs supposedly growing out of the ground dates back many centuries in China. Moreover, the earliest known mention of such a creature anywhere appears in a Jewish text from 436 AD entitled the Talmud Ierosolimitanum, or Jerusalem Talmud, written by Rabbi Jochanan, which refers to the yeduah, a lamb-like beast that sprouted from the ground attached to a plant stem. However, it was not until the 14th Century and the publication of a certain English nobleman's extraordinary travelogue that this bizarre plant-animal first attracted appreciable Western attention, after which it swiftly became a staple inclusion in any self-respecting bestiary.
The travelogue in question chronicled the astounding voyages of Sir John Mandeville around the then-known world, in which he claimed to have personally observed all manner of incredible and highly implausible creatures, including the vegetable lamb. This latter entity was supposedly encountered by him during his sojourn in a region of Tartary (a name used at that time for much of northern and central Asia) that nowadays constitutes China. Here is what he wrote about it:
There grows there a kind of fruit as big as gourds, and when it is ripe men open it and find inside an animal of flesh and blood and bone, like a little lamb without wool. And the people of that land eat the animal, and the fruit too. It is a great marvel.
In later centuries, it was revealed that Mandeville had never existed and that his travelogue was a clever hoax, quite probably executed by a 14th-Century Benedictine monk of Flemish extraction called Jan de Langhe, ingeniously incorporating and interpolating tracts extracted from several earlier works penned by real writers (a medieval Italian Franciscan friar and explorer called Odoric of Pordenone in the case of this travelogue's vegetable lamb information).
But by then, the fictional Mandeville's equally fictitious coverage of the vegetable lamb had firmly taken root, in every sense, firing both the imagination of Western naturalists anxious to see for themselves this true wonder of Creation and the inspiration of Western artists including depictions of it in religious illustrations. Perhaps the best example of the latter is the very detailed, ornate frontispiece plate included in English herbalist John Parkinson's monumental treatise Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629), in which a vegetable lamb can be perceived just behind Adam in the Garden of Eden.
Frontispiece to John Parkinson's Paradisus Terrestris, 1629, vegetable lamb arrowed - click image to enlarge it (public domain)
During the mid-16th Century, an equally influential account of the vegetable lamb appeared, this time penned by the celebrated scholar-diplomat Baron Sigismund von Herberstein (1486-1566), who had twice been the German emperor's ambassador at the Court of Muscovy (a Russian principality centring upon Moscow). In his account, published in 1549 within his magnum opus Notes on Muscovite Affairs, he added several important details, derived from information passed on to him by a number of different Russian sources.
In contrast to the Mandeville description claiming that it lacked wool, the Baron's account stated that the vegetable lamb possessed not only a normal lamb's head with eyes and ears, but also a normal lamb's woolly fleece. Its tiny limbs even sported hooves, though these were exceedingly delicate as they were apparently composed merely of compressed hairs, not the hard horny substance of real lambs' hooves. The lamb was permanently attached to a long stem, comparable to an umbilical cord, which grew vertically to a height of approximately 2.5 ft, thus suspending the lamb high above the ground, but it could apparently use its weight to bend the stem downwards, thereby enabling it to stand and walk upon the ground, and also to graze upon any grass or foliage that was within its reach.
Unfortunately for the vegetable lamb, however, as documented by botanist and fervent barometz believer Claude Duret in his Histoire Admirable des Plantes et Herbes Esmerueillables et Miraculeuses en Nature (1605), its flesh was very palatable (said by those who had eaten it to taste like crab meat) and its blood resembled honey. Consequently, it attracted particular gastronomic attention not only from humans but also from marauding packs of wolves, against which the little lamb had no defence. It could not even flee them, as it was irrevocably attached to its stem, and so was invariably torn apart and devoured by its ravaging attackers. Nor was that the only tragic fate that regularly befell this poor creature. Due again to its permanent tethering via its stem, once the lamb had eaten all of the grass and other vegetation within its reach it was doomed to starve to death, after which its plant progenitor died too.
Yet although such tales and accounts made absorbing reading, even in that pre-scientific age scholars still sought physical evidence to corroborate them whenever possible - but what physical evidence existed to confirm the reality of the vegetable lamb? According to the Tartars, they utilised this creature's fine wool as padding for the caps that they wore on their shaven heads at night for warmth, and also – of particular excitement to Western naturalists – some Muscovites claimed that the Tartars would occasionally sell entire vegetable lamb skins, albeit only for inordinately high prices.
As recorded by Jan Bondeson in his own comprehensive barometz writings, one person who was aware of such claims was Sir Richard Lea, who in 1570 had been appointed the ambassador of England's Queen Elizabeth I to the court of the Russian Tsar, Ivan IV ('The Terrible'). Moreover, he actually succeeded in obtaining a coat lined with vegetable lamb skins, after trading for it with the tsar an exquisite grinding mortar hewn from a magnificent piece of agate. Upon his death in 1609, Sir Richard bequeathed this zoo-botanical (or phyto-zoological?) treasure for safekeeping and study to none other than Oxford's nowadays world-famous Bodleian Library, which had been founded during that same period of time by Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613). Sadly, however, his expectation was not met, as the coat was simply left to deteriorate in condition inside Sir Thomas's own closet. Despite attempts to repair and renovate it during the 1630s and 1640s, it was probably discarded not long afterwards, because by the end of that century its whereabouts were no longer known and have never been ascertained since.
Notwithstanding this very regrettable loss (although 17th-Century German naturalist Dr Engelbert Kaempfer revealed that other such artefacts sold by Tartars were actually derived from the skins of unborn Astrakhan lambs), several entire preserved vegetable lambs have also been formally documented. One, measuring just over 1 ft long, resembled a four-legged wooden branch covered in a shining dark-yellow fleece.
It had originally been purchased from an Indian merchant by a Mr Buckley, and in 1698 it was exhibited at the Royal Society of London by the Society's Secretary, Sir Hans Sloane (whose own extremely substantial collection of artefacts became the foundation of the British Museum after he bequeathed them to the nation).
Moreover, Sloane exhibited a second preserved vegetable lamb at the Royal Society in 1725, this specimen originating in Russia and belonging to German physician Dr Johann P. Breyn. As Jan Bondeson has so aptly commented, however, it looked more like a fox terrier than a lamb!
Sadly, both of those specimens are now lost, but at least two others do still exist. One of them is a prize exhibit at the Garden Museum in Lambeth, London, which I specifically visited on 6 February 2015 in order to see it. When I arrived, however, I was sad to discover that it was not presently on display, but after the museum's exhibitions curator, Emily Fuggle, learnt of my interest in mysterious and mythological creatures she very kindly treated me to a private viewing of their celebrated specimen, currently residing in the museum's store. Standing in silent dignity, a mute and motionless marvel from a long-bygone age, the vegetable lamb of Lambeth peered ever outwards through the large glass dome inside which it was detained.
This memorable specimen, probably created during the mid-1800s, was an unexpected but very welcome donation to the museum some years ago from a Cambridgeshire doctor whose family had hitherto owned it for over 150 years, but Emily informed me that it is now too fragile and vulnerable to the effects of light and photography from which its antiquarian glass cupola can no longer shield it adequately for it to be placed on public display at present. Happily, however, there are plans for this unique wonder to return on show at the museum as a permanent exhibit, housed inside a special new case affording it full protection, so I look forward to a return visit there one day to see it again.
Vegetable lamb at Garden Museum, Lambeth, London (© T.P. Holland, Creative Commons Attributions Licence/Wikipedia - included here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)
The second preserved vegetable lamb specimen, which has resided inside its very own chest of drawers for over 200 years, is maintained in the stores of London's Natural History Museum, having only been placed on display once – briefly, in 1934 – during modern times.
However, an engraving of it was prepared during the 18th Century by John and Andrew Rymsdyk, and appears in their Museum Britannicum (1778).
Needless to say, vegetable lambs do not, could not exist, and never have done – they are nothing more than an exotic, imaginative fable from the Middle Ages. So how can the preserved specimens be explained – what exactly are they?
After examining the two examples that he exhibited at the Royal Society, Sloane had no doubts whatsoever concerning their identity. Both of them were nothing more than the inverted, hairy rhizome or rootstock of some form of large fern, whose roots had been removed, and four of whose frond stems had been retained but carefully shaved and modified to resemble slender legs.
Vegetable lambs depicted in artificially-modified, pseudo-zoological form on left, and in natural, fern-bearing form on right, from Svenska Familj-Journalen, vol. 18, 1879 (public domain)
And the only reason why this correct identification had not been readily recognised earlier is that the fern species in question did not begin to be widely introduced into Europe from its native habitat in China and the Malayan Peninsula until the 1800s.
A very large arborescent tree fern that grows up to 3 ft in height and whose fronds can reach 10 ft in length when fully mature, it is nowadays commonly known as the woolly fern, and has been scientifically dubbed Cibotium barometz – both names commemorating its link to the vegetable lamb legend.
All that remains to be answered, therefore, is how the myth of the vegetable lamb arose in the first place.
In a concise book devoted to this legendary entity, published in 1887 and entitled The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, Brighton Aquarium naturalist Henry Lee proposed that it was inspired by the cotton plant Gossypium herbaceum, whose white clumps of fleecy cotton fibres surrounding the plant's seeds (revealed when its ripe seed pods burst during warm weather) superficially resemble tiny lambs attached to stems. This hypothesis has been supported by a number of subsequent researchers.
However, as Jan Bondeson has tellingly pointed out, the cotton plant had been a familiar, widely-utilised species in Europe for centuries, and for even longer in China, yet with no suggestion anywhere on record of any myths or fables linking it to the production of lambs. So although initially appealing, Lee's proposal is definitely lacking in material support.
Consequently, although we know unquestionably that the vegetable lamb as a biological reality is an impossible concept, the riddle of how belief in this most fantastic of fantasy life-forms began, becoming an enduring myth in China, the Middle East, and thence Europe, still lacks a convincing answer even today.
This ShukerNature blog article is exclusively excerpted and expanded from my book A Manifestation of Monsters.