Arch. Myriam B. Mahiques Curriculum Vitae

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Legend of the Vegetable Lamb Plant

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, 1887, by Henry Lee. Image downloaded from

Polypodium barometz or Cibotium barometz, (golden chicken fern, woolly fern) is a species of arborescent fern. The general consensus is that the myth refers to the root of a Chinese fern, or maybe the legend was an explanation for the cotton plant. It is very interesting to know how a simple plant that resembled an animal was searched by curious travelers and ceremonies might have been developed around it in China.

Cibotium Barometz from

Cotton plant. Internet download.

As early as 445 BC Herodotus had written that “certain trees bear for their fruit fleeces surpassing those of sheep in beauty and excellence, and the natives clothe themselves in cloths made therefrom” (Lesley Gordon, Green Magic, p. 56. 1977, Viking Press, New York). This tree was known as wool-bearing tree. During the reign of Edward III, Sir John Mandeville described it and named it as Vegetable Lamb Plant. In the XVI and XVII centuries, this particular plant was made a subject of investigation and discussions by some famous writers. In his “Notes on Russia”, Baron Von Herberstein wrote that “a certain seed that of a melon, but rather rounder and longer, from which, when it was set in the earth, grew a plant resembling a lamb….which was called in the language of the country, Borametz or Little Lamb…It was rooted by the navel in the middle of the belly, and devoured the surrounding herbage and grass, and lived as long as that lasted; but when there was no more within its reach the stem withered and the lamb died”. (Lesley Gordon, 1977)

Tartarian sheep. Drawing by Thomas Bewick, 1790.

The specific lamb is the Tartarian sheep, that “is merely a variety of the common sheep, resulting from domestication. They are rather larger than those of the English breed. The color of the male is roan, or light brown mixed with white; the female is a mixture of black and white; their ears are rather long and pendulous; and instead of a tail, they have a large protuberance of fat behind”. (Thomas Brown, Biographical Sketches and Authentic Anecdotes of Quadrupeds. p. 571, London, 1831).

Barometz, from

Old drawing of the Lamb tree. From (By Panotea)

In his book “Medieval researches from Eastern Asiatic sources” (Vol 1, p. 154-155.1888. Great Britain), E. Bretschneider cites the legend “The lung chung yang (literally “sheep planted on hillocks”) are also produced in the western countries. The people take the navel of a sheep, plant it in the ground and water it. When it hears thunder it grows, the navel retaining a connection with the ground. After the beast has become full grown they take a stick and frighten it. Then the navel breaks off and the sheep begins to walk and eats grass. In autumn it can be eaten. The flesh of the navel (of the butchered sheep) can be planted again”. Then Bretschneider explains that “this miraculous story of a lamb that grows like a plant is nothing other than the reproduction of the medieval legend of the lamb-plant, Tartarian lamb, Agnus Acythicus. Friar Odoric, in the fourteenth century, was the first European traveler who referred to this story…., but it must have been current much earlier in Western countries, for the Chinese authors mention it in the ninth century. In the Tang Shu….(Byzantine Empire) I find the following account: There are in the country of Fu lin sheep which grow from the ground. The people wait till they shoot out, and then surround (the plant or beast) with a wall, to protect it against wild beasts. If the umbilical cord connecting the ground with the lamb is cut off, it will die….According to Odoric’s report, these lambs are found in large melons….The seed is like that of a melon, but the plant which is called barometz or “the lamb” (baran=sheep in Russian), grows to the height of about three feet in the form of that animal, with feet, hoofs, ears, etc, complete, only having in lieu of horns two curly locks of hair. If wounded, it bleeds…. In 1725 Dr Brein of Dantzig first declared that the pretended Agnus scythicus was nothing more than the root of a large fern covered with its natural yellow down, and accompanied by some of the stems, etc, in order when placed in an inverted position, the better to represent the appearance of the legs and horns of a quadruped. Linneus in 1752 received a fern from Southern China … and did not hesitate in declaring it to be the Agnus sovthicus, and to name it Polypodium Barometz…Modern botanists called the plant Cibotium Barometz. It is a tropical plant, found in South China, Assam, and on the Sandwich Islands… Medieval travelers as well as the Chinese annals agree in assigning to this marvelous plant-animal the countries of Western Asia or Eastern Europe”. (E. Bretschneider. p. 154-155.1888. Great Britain).

Polypodium Barometz. From

In 1557, Girolamo Cardano of Pavia exposed the absurdity of these beliefs. If it had blood, it must have a heart, and that the soil in which a plant grows is not fitted to supply a heart with movement and vital heat. In 1641, professor of Mathematics at Avignon, Athanasius Kircher, declared it was a plant; but confusion aroused when this woolly plant became entangled with the Astrakhan lamb skins which were a valuable article of commerce. The fleeces of these lambs were obtained before their birth to ensure a softer, whiter and curlier pelt. Most people thought it had a vegetable origin.
In 1716, John Bell walked many miles in Tartary to find this weird plant. But he could only find some dry bushes, which grew on a single stalk. It was true that no grass or leaves grew below the circle of its shade. And what was more important, the Tartarians themselves were laughing at the fable.
Sixty years later, the eminent botanical writer Dr Erasmus Darwin wrote an incredible poem dedicated to this quiet lamb located in the Arctic (!):

E’en round the Pole the flames of love
And icy bosoms feel the secret of 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
Crops they grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,
Or laps with rosy tongue the melting
Eyes with mute tenderness her distant
And seems to bleat –a “vegetable lamb”.
(Poem cited by Lesley Gordon, 1977)

NOTE. September 10, 2013

Though the fern I'm showing below was labeled as " Australian tree fern fuzz" it reminded me this vegetable lamb, at first sight it looked like lamb's ribs. It was pretty impressive on the touch.
I took this photograph on September 8th, 2013 at the Sherman Gardens and Library in Newport Beach, California.

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