The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

I have long been attracted by the above-named beast, which I came across for the first time in my previous existence, when skim-reading John Bell’s two-volume work of 1763, Travels from St Petersburg in Russia, to Diverse Parts of Asia. John Bell (1691–1780) was a Scots physician who managed to get a letter of recommendation to the court of Peter the Great in St Petersburg. Arriving in July 1714, within a year he was on his way to Persia, as part of a diplomatic mission to the emperor of Persia, the ‘Grand Sophy’. After over three years of travel, on his return to court he inveigled himself on to another diplomatic expedition, this time as far as China.

Bell’s later account includes sights, people, food, and oddities such as the vegetable lamb, which he takes much pleasure in debunking.

He takes the opportunity to swipe at ‘grave GERMAN authors’, but it is not clear whether he knew quite how old and how widespread belief in this ‘zoophyte’ creature was.

There are a lot of references online to an ancient (436 CE) Jewish account of the vegetable lamb, but they are circuitously referential, and the best way to untangle them is to refer to the work of Henry Lee, about whom the ODNB has a short entry, but sadly no accompanying image. Born in 1826 or 1827, Lee was, apparently, a hatter’s furrier in London, who became a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1866.

A woodcut illustrating Mandeville’s vegetable lamb, from Lee’s book.

In 1872, he was appointed as the ‘naturalist of the Brighton Aquarium’, and according, to the ODNB, ‘While at the aquarium he instituted important experiments on the migration of smelts, the habits of herring, and the nature of whitebait and crayfish. His Aquarium Notes (1875) for the use of visitors, was able and attractive. Lee was also author of The Octopus (1874), The White Whale (1878), Sea Fables Explained (1883), and Sea Monsters Unmasked (1883). The last two works were part of a series of handbooks issued in connection with the International Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883. He also published The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary: a Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant (1887)’, before dying in 1888.

A vegetable lamb, from Lee’s book.

In the first chapter of the Vegetable Lamb, he elucidates the Jewish account. One Claude Duret, of Moulins, wrote in his Histoire Admirable des Plantes (1605) about ‘The Boramets of Scythia, or Tartary, true Zoophytes or plant-animals; that is to say, plants living and sensitive like animals’, but Lee was unable to find any reference to it in the Latin translation of the Talmud Ierosolimitanum cited by Duret, and sought advice from the Rev. Dr Hermann Adler, Chief Rabbi Delegate of the United Congregations of the British Empire, who helpfully explicated the text: see here.

Duret’s ‘Scythian lamb’, from Lee’s book.

Lee also describes the various western European accounts of the vegetable lamb, beginning with Sir John Mandeville (or rather the uncertain author of the Voyages de Jehan de Mandeville chevalier (1357)) and the slightly earlier Friar Odoric of Pordenone, who returned to Italy in 1330 after travelling as far as China. The Hakluyt edition of Odoric’s account, editd by Sir Henry Yule in 1866, has this in its list of contents:

(Goose-barnacles (Lepas anatifera) were alleged by writers from Giraldus Cambrensis to John Gerard to give birth to geese.)

The Baron Sigismund von Herberstein (1486–1566) , ambassador of the Habsburgs to the court of the Grand Duke of Muscovy, gives an account (passed to him by Demetrius Danielovich, a person in high authority’, whose father had seen it in Tartar lands beyond the Volga) of ‘a certain seed like that of a melon, but rather rounder and longer, from which, when it was set in the earth, grew a plant resembling a lamb, and attaining to a height of about two and a half feet, and which was called in the language of the country “Borametz”, or “the little Lamb”. It had a head, eyes, ears, and all other parts of the body, as a newly born lamb. He also stated that it had an exceedingly soft wool, which was frequently used for the manufacturing of head-coverings.’

Sigismund von Herberstein in Russian dress (1517).

Herberstein himself, apparently, had been inclined to disbelieve this tale, but so many other people had given him second- or third-hand accounts of the same phenomenon ‘that he was induced to believe that there was more truthfulness in this matter than he had supposed, and to accept it as a fact redounding to the glory of the Sovereign Creator, to whom all things are possible’.

The title page of John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629) has a vegetable lamb in the left background.

A scientific debate about the lamb continued in a fairly desultory way, though, as Lee says: ‘About the middle of the seventeenth century very little belief in the story of the “Scythian Lamb” remained amongst men of letters, although it continued to be a subject of discussion and research for at least a hundred and fifty years later.’

‘Vegetable lambs’ among their fern originals, from a Swedish magazine of 1879.

Remarkably, the German botanist Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716) had gone out of his way to investigate the vegetable lamb during his travels. ‘He reported, on his return, that he had searched ad risum et nauseam for this “zoophyte feeding on grass”, that there was nothing in the country where it was believed to grow that was called “Borametz”, except the ordinary sheep, and that all accounts of a sheep growing upon a plant were mere fiction and fable.’ Kaempfer’s explanation for the legend is ‘the barbarous custom of killing the ewes before the time of natural parturition to obtain possession of the immature fleece of the unborn lamb’, as being most prized for the softness of its wool: he suggests that as the pelt dries, it shrinks and may be thought by ‘the ignorant and credulous’ to be a woolly gourd.

Sir Hans Sloane in 1698 presented to the Royal Society a specimen of the ‘Tartarian lamb’ which he had received from a Mr Buckley, chief surgeon at Fort St George (now Chennai), India.

The vegetable lamb presented by Sloane to the Royal Society, also from Lee’s book.

He identified it as the rhizome of a fern which had been deliberated crafted to make it look like a quadruped. And about thirty years later, in 1725, one Dr John Philip Breyn of Danzig wrote to the Society (in Latin) about a supposed Borametz that had come into his possession.

‘It was about six inches in length, and had a head, ears, and four legs. Its colour was that of iron-rust, and it was covered all over with a kind of down, like the fibres of silk-plush, except upon the ears and legs, which were bare, and were of a somewhat darker tawny hue. On careful examination of it, I discovered that it was not an animal production, nor yet a fruit, but either the thick creeping root, or the climbing stem, of some plant, which by obstetric art had acquired the form of a quadruped animal. For the four legs, which looked as if the feet had been cut off from them, were so many stalks which had supported leaves, as were also those which formed the ears, and which more nearly resembled horns.’

The illustration in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Breyn’s vegetable lamb, from Lee’s book.

‘The fibres emerging from these, by which, like other plants, this root or stalk had conveyed nutriment, left no doubt upon this point. Close inspection also showed that one of the front legs had been artificially inserted, and that the head and neck were not of one continuous substance with the body, but had been very cleverly and neatly joined on to it. In fact, this root, or stem, had been skilfully manipulated into the form of a lamb in the same artful manner as the little figures of men, which, it was said, shrieked and dropped human blood when drawn from the ground, were formed from the roots of the mandragore and bryony.’

The vegetable lamb as he appears in Elizabeth Blackwell‘s Curious Herbal of 1737 ff.

In other words, a complete fake – though this didn’t stop the poetic afterlife of the Borametz in such works as Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden (1781):

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’.

A vegetable lamb from the eighteenth century, now in the Collection of the Garden Museum, Lambeth.

But, as Lee points out, it isn’t that simple: the ferns which Sloane and Breyn identified don’t grow in ‘Tartary’; their ‘hair’ is golden, or tan, not the pure white of the lambs in the various early accounts, and these Bomaretz are roots, rather than springing from a melon-like seed-pod as in so many early descriptions.

Cibotium barometz (formerly classed as a Dicksonia), a possible original for the ‘rhizome type’ vegetable lamb. (Credit: Botanischer Garten München)

For these and other reasons, Lee takes the view that the real vegetable lamb is the cotton-boll – which interestingly takes us back to Herodotus’ description (Book III, 107) of cotton in India, ‘There, too, wool, more beautiful and excellent than the wool of sheep, grows on wild trees; these trees supply the Indians with clothing’.

A cotton boll from Lee’s book.

A woolly lamb-like cotton boll.

Lee is well worth a read on this subject: the rest of his book is a short history of the trade in cotton from East (and later the Americas) to West from ancient times until the 1880s, with some interesting appendices on topics ranging from Mandeville to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. I can’t help feeling a bit sad, though, that he succeeds in so completely debunking the tale of the vegetable lamb.


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4 Responses to The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

  1. I was about to send you a photo of Parkinson’s ‘lamb’ but see you have it. Fascinating post.


  2. Thanks! I really ought to look at a few more frontispieces from the sixteenth/seventeenth to see if the lamb pops up anywhere else …


  3. Pingback: A Curious Herbal | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

  4. Pingback: Ole Worm | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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