lamb, Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch, 1806 (public domain)
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
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.
depictions of vegetable lambs, 1887 (public domain)
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.
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.
lamb as portrayed in Mandeville's travelogue, 14th Century (public domain)
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
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.
to John Parkinson's Paradisus Terrestris, 1629, vegetable lamb arrowed - click image to enlarge it (public
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.
lamb, from Claude Duret's 1605 book (public domain)
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.
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.
lamb depicted in an antique French print, circa 1728 (public domain)
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
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.
of Buckley's vegetable lamb, exhibited by Sir Hans Sloane (public domain)
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).
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!
of Dr Johann Breyn's terrier-like vegetable lamb (public domain)
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.
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.
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)
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.
engraving of it was prepared during the 18th Century by John and
Andrew Rymsdyk, and appears in their Museum Britannicum (1778).
Natural History Museum's
vegetable lamb, as depicted in an engraving from 1778 (public domain)
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?
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.
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
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.
barometz (public domain)
All that remains
to be answered, therefore, is how the myth of the vegetable lamb arose in the
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
Lee's vegetable lamb book's front cover, 1887 (public domain)
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.
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.
lamb as depicted in Henry Lee's book, The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary,
1887 (public domain)