The vegetable lamb of Tartary

This article is also available in: Italiano

An extraordinary plant, whose origins have not yet been fully understood and which for centuries became one of the enigmas of the great botanists.

The vegetable lamb, a mythical creature

The story of the vegetable lamb has its origins even in the Jewish epic, according to which there existed the Yeduah ידוע, a legendary plant from the stem of which a sort of lamb sprouted. The latter devoured the vegetation around it, dying together with the plant once the nourishment was finished; to kill him it was necessary to pierce the stem with arrows and / or darts, then collecting the precious animal, a fundamental part of several ancient rituals.

vegetable lamb
Gossypium arboreum

The presence of such a beast will then be confirmed by Herodotus, who, speaking of an Indian tree states: “The fruit is a wool that surpasses the beauty of the sheep for beauty and goodness. The natives wear this tree wool.” With these phrases the Greek historian clearly intended to speak of cotton, due to ignorance of the times, however, it quickly became a separate species, so much so that over the centuries many people treated it in depth.

The official birth of an invented species

Starting from the 14th century, in fact, the myth of the vegetable lamb began to gain more and more strength, also thanks to “The travels of Sir John Mandeville”, a work which, although mostly based on fantasy, incredibly relaunched the myth around this creature The legendary English adventurer, however, did not describe it as much as a plant with wool, but rather as a pumpkin which, once matured, revealed a real lamb placed inside it. This version became increasingly important also to the words of Odoric of Pordenone, a real Italian traveler who became famous in the Middle Ages.

vegetable lamb

In the mid-sixteenth century it was Sigismund von Herberstein, Habsburg ambassador to Russia, who gave substance to what, at least until then, was in any case considered as a legend. In fact, he provided a precise description regarding: height, behavior, habitat, predators and even taste, thus giving the impression that there could actually be something true in the story.

2 treaties and a strange conclusion

From that moment on, the search for this plant never ended, with several expeditions that wandered throughout Asia in search of it, most of which, however, ended without success. We will have to wait until 1887 to see a new thematic naturalistic document, but this time a book arrived entirely dedicated to this strange life form: “The vegetable lamb of Tartary” by Henry Lee. In this work all the characteristics of the beast were identified in a stable way, providing the standards for the species. A few years later, the Dutch naturalist Gustaaf Schlegel also wrote a treatise called: “The Shui-yang or Watersheep and The Agnus Scythicus or Vegetable Lamb”. Here the scholar related the legend of the vegetable lamb to that of the sea lamb, showing for the first time a possible closeness between the 2 myths.

vegetable lamb
The Cibotium barometz

In reality, the Shui Yang was none other than a way of explaining the birth of byssus, a particular fiber obtained from Pinna nobilis, a particular bivalve that lives in the Mediterranean sea. Although nowadays it seems almost obvious to imagine this fabulous plant like cotton, in 1600 it was established that the legendary lamb was actually the Cibotium Barometz, a particular woolly fern from China and the Malaysian peninsula.

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