Sheep fruit

Behold the fabulous creatures of myth and legend! The dragon, the phoenix, the basilisk, the roc, the unicorn… and the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary?

Mythological creatures, from Bertuch's Picture Book for Children
Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The illustration above is taken from a German encyclopaedia / picture book for children, first published in 1790 CE. Most of the mythological creatures depicted on this page are still well known today, but one is a little more obscure. This one:

Vegetable lamb
Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Is it a plant? Is it an animal? Actually, it’s both. This is the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.

This is how the myth goes: there is a small tree or bush that grows in Central Asia (specifically in Scythia, according to some accounts). This tree’s fruit is a kind of sheep. Not just a fruit resembling a sheep, but a fully formed adult sheep. It stays attached to the tree for its whole life – perpetually tethered to one spot like an ovine stylite. The sheep survives by grazing grazing the ground immediately around the plant. If they run out of grass in that circle, they die. If their connection to the parent plant is severed, they die.

Vegetable Lamb of Tartary
From Svenska Familj-Journalen, Vol. 18, 1879, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This is the entry in Diderot’s Encyclopédie:

“Nothing,” said Jules Cesar Scaliger, “can compare with the wonderful Scythian bush. It grows mainly in Zaccolham, a region which is as famous for its antiquity as for the bravery of its inhabitants. The seed that is sown in the region looks rather like a melon seed, except that it is less oblong. It produces a plant that is about three feet high, and which is called barometz , or lamb, because it looks exactly like that animal – it has the same legs, hooves, ears and head. […]

When it is cut, blood flows from it; and that it has a very sweet taste. The plant’s roots spread a long way under ground. What is even more extraordinary is that agnus scythicus eats the shrubs that grow around it, so that if ever these plants are uprooted or die, then it too will die. This is not in the least a matter of chance: every time the plant has been deprived of nourishment from neighbouring plants, it has perished. A further incredible fact is that wolves are the only carnivorous animals that are fond of it.”

“Agnus scythicus,” Encyclopédie

Diderot goes on to list many famous botanists and scholars who have written about the vegetable lamb, including the father of empiricism Francis Bacon… and then ladles a big heaping dose of scepticism on top:

Could it be possible that after so many important authorities have vouched for the Scythian lamb’s existence […] could it be that the Scythian lamb should turn out to be a fable? And if this is the case, what else can be believed in natural history?

“Agnus scythicus,” Encyclopédie
Vegetable Lamb of Tartary
Lee, 1887, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The origins of this myth are unclear, but there are at least a couple of good candidates. China has a tree fern with a wooly-textured base:

Tree Fern
Mokkie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

And of course cotton plants are an obvious ancestor. The German word for cotton translates literally as “tree wool,” and it’s entirely possible that early Medieval Europeans could imagine imported cotton coming from a weird animal-plant hybrid, as in this 14th century travelogue:

John Mandeville, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever its source, I find this particular myth to be harmless and a little endearing. I mean, who wouldn’t want to grow a little lamb on a botanical leash in their back yard?

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