Planting Sheep


Seeing a mention of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary in this Wired article made me realize I’d never addressed this myth on my blog, and while I probably won’t be adding anything new to the existing information, it’s something that’s definitely Relevant To My Interests. Drew Mackie made a post about it a few years ago. Around the eleventh century or so, Europeans first heard about cotton, and decided it was wool that grew on a plant. This in turn led to tales of lambs growing on plants, originally as fruit that grew in pods, but later as an animal that was actually part of a plant.

The stem was flexible, so it could graze for grass in the area, but if it broke the animal would die. The popularity of this animal-plant is partially due to the work of Sir John Mandeville, a traveler and teller of tall tales who probably never actually existed. He (or more likely the writer who made him up) claimed to have seen such plants growing in Tartary, an old name for a large portion of northern Asia, presumably known for its seafood condiments and cold steak. Later accounts added that its skin was actually kind of crab-like, and its blood tasted like honey.

In Jewish legend, it was called a yeduah, and it was said that its bones could be used to grant prophetic powers. Nineteenth century English naturalist Henry Lee proposed an etymological connection between the yeduah and jedouai, a term for a magic-worker supposedly used in Leviticus (I could not actually confirm this). Jewish lore also tells of a related plant called the fadua, which is human in appearance and quite aggressive to anyone who approaches it. Perhaps there’s some relation here to mandrakes, which are said to have roots resembling miniature humans that scream when uprooted.

Apparently some alchemists thought it was possible to grow mandrakes into people, or at least human-like beings. For that matter, what about the more recent children’s myth about newborn babies being found in gooseberry bushes or cabbages?

The exact origin for this story is unclear, although The Telegraph insists it’s because “gooseberry” was a slang term for pubic hair. While this may indeed be accurate slang, I can’t say I buy the connection. There’s also the medieval legend of the barnacle tree, said to grow alongside British waters and drop fruit that would turn into geese.

Wait, shouldn’t it be the geese that come from gooseberry bushes? Anyway, the existence of the Vegetable Lamb was debated up until the late seventeenth century, which seems like pretty late for such a bizarre myth to have hung on. Since the plant presumably has all the parts of a lamb, including the brain, I suppose it wouldn’t be a cruelty-free source of mutton, more’s the pity. Personally, I have to suspect the Vegetable Lamb was actually an early experiment of the Wizard Wam.

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5 Responses to Planting Sheep

  1. Bryan Babel says:

    In the Old Testament, Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel quarrel over some mandrake roots; they apparently believed they would promote fertility.

    The story of Barnacle Geese growing from barnacles was a way for people to get around meatless fasts in the Middle Ages: claiming the geese were vegetable and not meat let them get past the ban with a little legendary jiggery-pokery.

    • Nathan says:

      That’s like the urban legend that the Pope declared capybaras to be fish, and hence valid eating during Lent. Probably not true, but it DID inspire a Rasputina song.

  2. Bryan Babel says:

    And I’ve always thought that the Vegetable Lamb would be the perfect solution to the dilemma of the Myrmecolion: “It is a beast that is the result of a mating between a lion and an ant. It has the face of a lion and the body of an ant, with each part having its appropriate nature. Because the lion part will only eat meat and the ant part can only digest grain, the ant-lion starves.”

    • Nathan says:

      Along those lines, I have to wonder how the Minotaur eats human flesh when he has the head of a herbivorous animal. I have to suspect that there’s more going on with these creatures’ innards than the myths actually tell us.

  3. Pingback: Catching Up with Constance (and Others) | VoVatia

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