Legend of the Lamb-Plant

Published in Probe Volume 2(3): Fall 1992


Judith J. Ho
Library Technician
Special Collections
National Agricultural Library, USDA
Beltsville, MD

Through history, science has crystallized from many divergent paths. From Roger Bacon (1214-94) until well into the present century, discoveries were made and lost and made again.1 The word "biology" was not even coined until 1802. It has been said that if there is a moment at which biology began, it must have been 1615, when William Harvey, then the Court physician of Charles I of England, conceived of the heart as a pump, circulating the blood.

The idea that a living body could be analyzed in purely mechanical terms was one of the greatest milestones in man's intellectual history. Until that discovery, life in all its forms had been a quasi-magical phenomenon, intertwined with religion and emotions that ordinary men were not expected to understand. In fact, such individual expectations were considered impious, perhaps even sacrilegious.2

During the Middle Ages, medieval men craved order in science as well as in life. When they were halted in finding true laws, they took recourse in symbolism to explain life's mysteries. To the thinkers of that time, ideas were more real than material things, and myths were very much a part of the age of pre-scientific thought.

Trees as Symbols

Trees were among the first plants worshipped by man and were also among the first symbols, representing the ideas of reproduction and eternity. Similar ideas were represented by bushes and flowering plants, sometimes by combining more than one plant or species on the same stylized plant drawing, sometimes the drawing or figure would be stylized into animal or human shapes, such as the tree of life and the tree of knowledge.

These symbols were taken up by all beliefs and religions in both the western and eastern worlds.2b The Greek Historian Heroditus (484-425 B.C.); whose travels took him to northern Africa, Egypt, Assyria, and Persia; was one of the earliest explorers responsible for the discovery of many plants, for bringing them from one continent to another, and also for bringing with him knowledge of their properties and cultivation. Heroditus mentions the Borametz as early as 442 B.C. Mentioned again in the Mishna Kilain portions of the Talmud, this passage occurs referring to the Borametz zoophyte, the famous Lamb of Tartary or lamb-plant:

     Creatures called Adne Hasadeh
     (literally, "Lords of the Field")
     are regarded as beasts.

In 1235, Talmudic mention is again made: "It is stated in the Jerusalem Talmud that is a human being of the mountains: it lives by means of its navel: if its navel be cut, it cannot live. ...this is the animal called Jeduah."

This is also the Jedoui mentioned in the Christian Bible in the book of Leviticus (xix, 31). Called Jedua, this animal is human in all respects, except that by its navel it is joined to the stem that issues from the root. No creature can approach within the tether for it seizes and kills them. Within the tether of the stem, it devours the herbage all around it. To kill it, men must tear at it or aim arrows at its stem until it is ruptured, whereupon the animal dies.4 It is little wonder then that medieval thinkers strongly believed in and hotly debated the existence of such things as the mysterious plant animals embodied in the myth of "the Lamb of Tartary" (Fig. 1) and in other myths of that time.

Curious Fable

The fable of the Lamb of Tartary, variously entitled "The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary," "The Sythian Lamb," and "The Borometz," or "Borametz" is a curious one. This "lamb-plant" is represented as springing from a seed like that of a melon, but rounder, and supposedly cultivated by natives of the country where it grew. The lamb was contained within the fruit or seedcapsule of the plant, which would burst open when ripe to reveal the little lamb within it. The wool of this little lamb was described as being "very white."3

When planted, it grew to a height of two and a half feet and had a head, eyes, ears, and all the parts of the body of a newly born lamb. It was rooted by the navel in the middle of the belly, and devoured the surrounding herbage and grass.4

This particular story of the mythical Scythian Lamb captured the imaginations of men everywhere during this early period. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the "Scythian Lamb" was again made the subject of investigation and argument by the most celebrated writers, philosophers, and scientific men of that time. Theophrastus (306 B.C.), the disciple of Aristotle, had earlier described wool-bearing trees with a pod the size of a spring apple, leaves like those of the black mulberry, but the whole plant resembled the dog-rose.5 This was a very correct description of the cotton plant. Pliny the Elder (77 A.D.) also mentioned "wool-bearing trees," but seemed to confuse cotton and flax in his writings.6

Sigismund, Baron von Herberstein, who in 1517 and 1526 was the Ambassador to the Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V and to the "Grand Czard or Duke of Muscovy," spoke for many of his time when he said in his "Notes on Russia" (Rerum Muscoviticarum Commentarii, 1549) of the "Vegetable lamb":

     It had a head, yes, ears, and all other parts a newly born lamb.
     ...For myself, although I had previously regarded these Borametz
     as fabulous, the accounts of it were confirmed to me by so many
     persons of credence that I thought it right to describe it.
The numerous descriptions differed so little that he accepted them as truth.5

Claude Duret (1605) of Moulins devoted an entire chapter to the "Borametz of Scythia or Tartary" in his work entitled Histoire Admirable des Plantes. His imaginative illustration from the book appears in Figure 1 of this article. John Parkinson (1656) figured the lamb-plant in the frontispiece of his Paridisi in Sole--in the center just to the left is a tiny Borametz.

All of these men were well-known and respected in their time. They either figured the lamb-plant in their respective works or reported in their writings that they had seen the mysterious Borametz, thus enhancing and perpetuating the authenticity of this strange story.

Search Continued

Explorers continued to go in search of it, and collectors examined what they thought were specimens of it. Engelbrecht Kaempfer went to Persia in 1683 to search for the "zoophyte feeding on grass," but could not find it and reported that in his writings, entitled Amoentitatum Exoxticarum politico-physicomedicarum fasciculi, 1712. John Bell of Autermony made a diplomatic journey to Persia in 1715-1722 and tried to obtain authentic information on the vegetable lamb, but he was not successful. He reported as much in his writings, entitled Travels from St. Petersburg in Russia to Various Parts of Asia, in 1716, 1719, 1722, &c: Dedicated to the Governor, Court Assistants, and Freemen of the Russia Company, London, 1764.

Kaempfer's manuscripts and collections were acquired by Sir Hans Sloane, wealthy British patron, collector, and eventually founder of the British Museum, who in 1698 received a specimen that was supposed to be the mysterious Borametz or Lamb of Tartary. His description was printed in the Royal Society's Transactions. Dr. Philip Breyn, a colleague of Sloane's, also debunked the borametz from a specimen he also received, examined, and reported in his work, entitled "Dissertiuncula de Agno Vegetabili Scythico, Borametz Vulgo Dicto," which appeared in the British Philosophical Transactions (vol. xxxiii, p. 353, 1725).

Sloane identified his specimen as being constructed of a portion of one of the arborescent ferns (Dicksonia) of which there are about 35 species, some of which grow in the United States and one of which bears the name to this day of Dicksonia borametz. Sloane exposed his specimen as the stem or rootlet of a fern, artificially and cleverly manipulated to look like a lamb, thus dealing what appeared to be a crushing blow to this fable.

But the story would not die. Half a century later in 1768, the Abbe Chappe-Auteroche made a visit to Tartary searching for information on the elusive Scythian Lamb, but again to no avail. Then, in 1778, Hohn and Andrew Rymsdyck in their work, entitled Museum Britannicum, figured it in Plate XV.

Poetry Subject

Toward the end of the 18th century, eminent botanists, who were well acquainted with the specimens described earlier by Sloane, Breyn, and others, again made the legendary Borametz their theme. This time it was also picked up by the literary men of the time. In 1781, Dr. Erasmus Darwin made it the subject of his poem, The Botanic Garden (London, 1781):

     E'en round the Pole the flames of love aspire,
     And icy bosoms feel the secret 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 bends,
     Crops the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,
     Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime;
     Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,
     And seems to bleat - a vegetable lamb.

Later, in 1791, Dr. De la Croix, in his Connubia Florum, Latino Carmine Demonstrata (Bath, 1791), extolled the fabulous plantanimal in a Latin poem, which critics at the time hailed as approaching the quality of Virgil's "Georgics." The poem says, in part (translated):

     For in his path he sees a monstrous birth, 
     The Borametz arises from the earth
     Upon a stalk is fixed a living brute,
     A rooted plant bears quadruped for fruit,
     ...It is an animal that sleeps by day
     and wakes at night, though rooted in the ground,
     to feed on grass within its reach around.6

Cotton Plant
Henry Lee in his work, The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary; A Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant (London, 1887), claims that this curious myth actually originated in the early descriptions of the cotton plant. Lee stated it thus: Tracing the growth and transition of this story of the lamb-plant from a rumour of a curious fact into a detailed history of an absurd fiction, there can be no doubt that it origiated in early descriptions of the cotton plant, and the introduction of cotton from India into Western Asia and the adjoining parts of Eastern Europe.

Interest Continued

The lamb-plant was discussed by philosophers, sought after by travellers and explorers of that time, written about in the literature, and talked about all over Europe. In spite of some confusion of facts, and both accidental and purposeful misrepresentation, there was just enough basis in observed fact, coupled with reports and assertions of truth by respected scientific men of the time, to perpetuate interest in the lambplant story from generation to generation.

References

  1. Pledge, H.T. Science Since 1500; A Short History of Mathematics, Physics, chemistry, Biology. The Philosophical Library: New York, New York. 1947, p. 14.
  2. Facts on File, p. 12.
    2b. Lehner, Ernst and Johanna. Folklore and Symbolism of Flower, Plants and Trees, New York, Tudor Publishing Co., 1960, p. 16-19.
  3. Lee, Henry. The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary; A Curious Fable of the Cotton Plant. to Which is added A Sketch of the History of Cotton and the Cotton Trade. Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London, 1887, p. 45.
  4. Ibid., p. 12.
  5. Op. Cit., Lee, p. 11.
  6. Op. Cit., Lehner, p. 86.