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Animal or Vegetable? Legend of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

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Vegetable Lamb

The Vegetable Lamb, or Borametz. Credit: Lee, H. 1887. The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant.

As Food Week comes to an end here at SciAmBlogs, I thought it important to consider that which sits on the precipice of the animal and the vegetable: The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.

The Vegetable Lamb, or Lamb-Tree, was a popular myth of the Middle Ages that described a live lamb growing from a very special plant. It was believed to come from a vast region of Europe and Central Asia known then as Tartary, which gave the Vegetable Lamb one of its many alternate names, Borametz, which was the Tartar word for "lamb".

Medieval texts described two varieties of the Vegetable Lamb - the first produced little naked, newborn lambs inside its pods, and the other had a life-sized lamb, with bones, blood and flesh, attached by its belly button to a short plant stem. This stem was extremely flexible, so allowed the tethered lamb to graze on the vegetation around it. Once all the vegetation was eaten, or if the stem broke, the lamb would die.

The origin of the myth has been traced all the way back to 436, first mentioned as Adne Hasadeh (meaning 'lords of the field') in a Jewish text called Talmud Ierosolimitanum, or Jerusalem Talmund, by Rabbi Jochanan. Like wolves, hunters loved the Vegetable Lamb for its delicate flesh that tasted like fish and blood as sweet as honey. But it was impossible to separate it from its plant unless the stem has been severed. And it needed to be severed specifically with arrows or darts.

Vegetable Lamb pods

The alternate variety of Vegetable Lamb plant, where newborn lambs are born from pods. Credit: Lee, H. 1887. The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant.

Nineteenth century British naturalist, Henry Lee, researched this myth extensively for his 1887 book, The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant, and on consulting some Jewish elders, he learned of an alternate, and far more sinister, take on this text, which explains the hunters' weapon of choice. He quotes a passage written by a 13th century Jewish commentator, Rabbi Simeon:

"It is stated in Jerusalem Talmund that this is a human being of the mountains: it lives by means of its naval: if its navel be cut, it cannot live … A kind of large stem issues from a root in the earth on which this animal, called Fadua, grows, just as gourds and melons. Only the Fudua has, in all respects, a human shape, in face, body, hands and feet … No creature can approach within the tether of the stem, for it seizes and kills them … When they want to capture it, no mans dares approach it, but they tear at the stem until it is ruptured, whereupon the animal dies."

This hideous man-plant was too much, even for Rabbi Simeon, who preferred to cast his lot with the soft-skinned, clove-footed, wool-wearing lamby version of the Vegetable Lamb.

Lee connected the myth of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary to the Indian cotton-pod, pointing to yet another moniker, 'the Scythian Lamb'. Scythia at the time described many regions in Europe and Asia, but Lee points to Indo-Scythia, a region of India that Alexander the Great would invade in the 4th Century. Alexander's officer Nearchus reported that when they got there, they found its locals clad in a "vegetable wool", later identified as cotton wool. "Garments the material of which was whiter than any other … made of the wool like that of lambs, which grew in tufts and bunches upon trees," Nearchus reported.

The myth has also been connected to a species of fern native to China and parts of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia. Cibotium barometz, otherwise known as the golden chicken fern or the woolly fern, grows to about one metre tall, with three-metre-long stems and a particularly woolly subterranean root called a rhizome. Lee described the Maoris of New Zealand as taking the large, scaly rhizome of a similar species of fern, baking it in hot ashes, and eating it as a starchy meal with meat.

vegetable lamb fern

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, bearing resemblance to a woolly fern. Credit: Svenska Familj-Journalen, 1879.

The Vegetable Lamb myth gave rise to an equally fantastical creature, the barnacle goose. The myth of the barnacle goose started off describing these marsh birds as growing on trees, often in pods, dropping into the water below when ripe. In 1187, Welsh clergyman and Archdeacon of Brecon, Giraldus Cambrensis, greatly influenced the myth by describing the barnacle goose as being produced not by living trees, but by driftwood: "There are here many birds which are called Bernacae, which nature produces in a manner contrary to nature, and very wonderful," he wrote. "I have seen with my own eyes more than a thousand minute bodies of these birds hanging from one piece of timber on the shore, enclosed in shells, and already formed."

Barnacle Geese

Barnacle Geese. Facsimile of an Engraving on Wood, from the Cosmographie Universelle of Munster, folio, Basle, 1552.

Unlike the Vegetable Lamb, the barnacle goose myth was based on a real animal, a European goose species, Branta leucopsis. The myth was particularly popular among the religious men of the time, cited also in Speculum Maius, the most popular encyclopaedia in the Middle Ages, by Vincent of Beauvais, a Dominican friar. In his 1915 book, Diversions of a Naturalist, British zoologist Sir E. Ray Lankester suggested that when faced with their sacred fasting days, the clergy in France and Britain exercised their authority in declaring the barnacle goose technically more fish than fowl, and thus an accepted fasting meal. Indeed, as Giraldus Cambrensis wrote,

"...Bishops and religious men (viri religiosi) in some parts of Ireland do not scruple to dine off these birds at the time of fasting, because they are not flesh nor born of flesh ... But in so doing they are led into sin. For if anyone were to eat of the leg of our first parent (Adam) although he was not born of flesh, that person could not be adjudged innocent of eating meat."

Read an extensive history of the myth by John S Wilkins here.

Sources:

Ashton, John. 1890 Curious Creatures in Zoology

Lankester, E R. 1915 Diversions of a Naturalist

Lee, Henry. 1887. The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant

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