The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

by Rebecca Reynolds

The Garden Museum is in Saint Mary’s Church near Lambeth Bridge on the Thames in London. It has been a church site since the eleventh century, although it is now deconsecrated. In its graveyard lie the plant-hunter and collector of curiosities John Tradescant. Also buried here is Vice-Admiral William Bligh, captain of The Bounty when some of its crew famously mutinied in 1789, and later governor of New South Wales in Australia. Inside, beneath the stained glass and Gothic columns are pruning shears, bright pictures of gardens through the centuries, and books of horticulture. Delicious smells from the vegetarian cafe in the corner waft around the displays.

Vegetable Lamb
Photo by Malcom Russell courtesy of the Garden Museum, London,

I have come to the museum to see the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary. The lamb is one of the museum’s treasures. It has a specially designed display case, the money donated by the family of a volunteer who, in the words of the museum’s curatorial assistant Philip Norman, “loved the old lamb.” A black and brown furry and slightly threadbare object, it is not easy to identify. It stands on its own island of dead vegetation, under a small glass cupola.

Vegetable lambs came from Central Asia, then known as Tartary, which included parts of modern-day Siberia, Turkistan, Mongolia, and China. People were said to believe that the lamb was both animal and vegetable. It was thought to be created by “spontaneous generation” and attached to the earth by an umbilical cord. It had eyes, ears, hooves, blood, and wool and died when it had eaten the grass around it. But many collectors did not believe this. For example, natural historian and physician Hans Sloane identified it as a fern when in 1698 he presented one to scholars at the Royal Society. And in fact vegetable lambs are dead ferns turned upside down and shaped so that the stalks, which grew upwards, become legs pointing downwards. Sir Thomas Browne writes in Pseudodoxia Epidemica, his seventeenth-century work which aimed to investigate superstitions:

Much wonder is made of the Baromez, that strange plant-animal or vegetable lamb of Tartary, which wolves delight to feed on, which hath the shape of the lamb, affordeth a bloody juyce upon breaking, and liveth while the plants be consumed about it… the Barometz is a union of animal and vegetable kingdoms.

But he goes on to warn that bees, flies, and dogs can also be seen in plants and the lamb may therefore not be what it seems.

Others were also skeptical but were fascinated by how such a belief might have arisen. Writing in 1887, naturalist Henry Lee calls this “a curious myth of the Middle Ages” and quotes John Bell, an eighteen-century traveller, as saying, “after a careful enquiry of the more sensible and experienced among the Tartars, I found they regarded it as a ridiculous fable.” Lee was determined to get to the bottom of the story and proposed that the vegetable lamb was a cotton pod, and its fleece cotton wool.

I spoke to conservation student Sylvia Haliman, who worked on restoring the museum’s lamb over a three-month period. She described her task and talked about her relationship with the lamb. Intriguingly, her initial approach takes us back to when people asked themselves whether it was a plant or animal.

“The first thing we do is find out its material; that’s fundamental. Was it a plant or animal?  Looking at it, you wouldn’t have guessed. It could have been a paw from an animal, for example; it was quite ambiguous. It didn’t seem to be completely vegetable matter because it’s got that hair, like a fleece. When I showed it to course colleagues and a lecturer, some people thought it was an artwork or flower arrangement.

“Another thing that attracted me is the fact that it is arranged – it looks a bit like taxidermy – it’s got its own home, habitat, like a diorama setting, so I was quite intrigued by that. I tidied up the surrounding vegetation to stabilize it, and removed some pests – carpet beetles and vodka beetle larvae. I came to treat it like a living being. Because it’s a biological object, it’s probably still living… it’s aging. Usually an object is a functional object, or a working object, it’s set in its boundaries, but because this is so open, it’s more intriguing.

“The friend who first introduced me to the lamb used to come in regularly to see it. People may not know what it is or know much about its history and material, yet they are drawn to it – simply because it is quite enigmatic.

“The most dangerous thing is if it’s left forgotten or inaccessible. I want conservation to give greater access to the collections – and this is such a popular object, almost iconic, and it belongs to people who remember it fondly.”

Many writers have been fascinated by the lamb. Borges, for example, includes the lamb in his Book of Imaginary Beings, remarking: “other monsters are made up by combining various kinds of animals; the Barometz is a union of the animal and vegetable kingdoms.”

In his 2007 novel Evolution the science-fiction writer Stephen Baxter imagines a future world where the story of the lamb lives on: “mankind’s legends were forgotten now, but the tale of the Borametz…found strange echoes.” In this world, trees put out “snaking umbilicals,” which worm their way into the stomachs of the post-human inhabitants. The trees and post-humans thus form a symbiotic relationship; the trees deliver nutrients in their sap to post-humans, who in return tend the tree. But the tree rejects weaker specimens. A baby is born to a woman called Ultimate, and the tree decides it cannot afford to nurture the baby and starts to reabsorb her. The mother rescues her baby, pulling “the belly-root from the infant’s gut, and bits of white fibre from her mouth and nose.”

Are the pleasures that the lamb now offers similar to those it offered to collectors and travellers of the past, that of imagining how such a creature might feed and live, or how the myth arose? At any rate, it continues to play in people’s imaginations.

About the Author

Rebecca Reynolds lives in London and works as an educational consultant and Museum Studies lecturer at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), Reading University, in Berkshire, England. Additionally, Reynolds teaches Academic English and Creative Writing at Hertfordshire University.