June 10, 2011

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

        No, it isn't a recipe.  It's a denizen of medieval bestiaries.  This is one of those quirky mythical creatures I want to use in one of my stories some day, but haven't yet found a place for.  There are various versions of the account of the vegetable lamb through the Middle Ages, but if you blend them together you get something like this:
        The seed of the plant looks like a melon seed, and when you plant it it grows a melon out of which hatches a small lamb.  The lamb is almost just like a real sheep, with legs and ears and very fine, soft wool.  There are just a few small differences.  One, it has tufts of wool instead of horns.  Two, its blood tastes like nectar (and according to one version, its meat tastes like crab).  And three, it remains attached to its plant by an umbilical stem.  Because it's permanently tethered to the ground, it can graze only on what it can reach from its roots.  When it's eaten everything within reach, it starves and the plant dies.  The lamb will also die if its umbilical stem is broken.  Then people (or wolves) can eat it with great delight.  What I was not able to figure out is whether it's fair game for vegetarians.  I had thought at least one of those medieval sources might mention whether or not you were allowed to eat vegetable lamb on meat-free days, but I didn't see that information anywhere, unless the crab-flavored meat was the clue.
        The legend probably began as early as the fifth century, and gained wide credence with the publication of the travel accounts of Friar Odoric (largely genuine, c. 1350) and Sir John Mandeville (largely fictitious, c. 1360).  All these legends placed the vegetable lambs in the general neighborhood of Tartary and Persia.  In the mid sixteenth century the creature/plant was still discussed as too creditably reported for there to be any doubt as to its existence.  As late as 1683 a German scholar named Englebert Kämpfer went to Persia to find the vegetable lamb.  Alas, he finally concluded that it was a mere myth.
        There are two plants associated with the vegetable lamb.  The first is cotton, the idea being that when Europeans first heard of a plant that grows wool, they envisioned the vegetable lamb.  (The German word for cotton, Baumwolle, literally means "tree wool."  The English word "cotton" itself comes from Arabic qutn.)  The other plant is a tree fern native to parts of southeast Asia.  It has a thick, wooly rhizome, which you can just about see as the body of a lamb, if it were flipped over and the stems of the fronds were its legs.  The scientific name of the fern is Cibotium barometz, of which the "barometz" is another common name for the vegetable lamb.  (Other spellings are borometz and borametz.  All these variants apparently derive from the Tartar word for lamb, (although I couldn't confirm that.)  Yet another name for the thing, by the way, is the Scythian lamb.)
        This is one of those charming inventions for which the world is richer.  If I ever encounter a vegetable lamb, I think I'll keep it growing in a big pot on wheels.  That way I could move it around the yard so that it wouldn't eat any one place bare and then starve.

[Pictures: woodcut from The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, c 1360;
engraving by W.G. Smith (?) from Svenska Familj-Journalen, 1879.
(Thank you, Wikimedia Commons and users loscius and Jonkerz.)]

6 comments:

  1. Thanks especially for some of your recent posts, especially the ones that introduce me to printmakers that are new to me. I have long liked the work of Kathe Kollwitz, but new artists for me are Carroll Thayer Berry, Jacques Hnizdovsky, Cyril Powers and those wonderful edible Vegetable Lambs. You don't learn enough about these people in art appreciation courses. I'll keep my eyes peeled for other pieces by them as I wander the galleries of art museums and scan the pages of books. Never too old to learn.

    The Aging Wordsmith

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  2. There are references to this in the children's book, "Where the Wild Geese Go." I remember the illustration, but I can't remember the details. Guess I'll have to buy one of those Amazon used copies for $.60! Thanks for the history of this, Anne.

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  3. Ooh, I don't know that book, Nan. I'll have to look it up. Are the wild geese in question barnacle geese? Because they're another animal/plant hybrid from medieval bestiaries!

    Glad to be of service, Wordsmith! I've got a long list of artists I want to feature, so there will be plenty more coming up.

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  4. I found a copy of the book, Anne, and yes, they are barnacle geese. There are also snow fleas, the hounds of winter, and other delightful metaphors in a land where children sprout feathers if they don't wash behind their ears.

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  5. Ha! That last comment is really from me. I'm pretending to be Ned so I can post his swimming adventures on HIS blog today.
    Nan

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  6. I also searched out the book after you mentioned it, Nan. I enjoyed how the traditional elements were woven into the tale. Lovely illustrations, too.

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