Ah, innocent times past … Matt Simon reminisces about the wonderful Vegetable Lamb of Tartary in his “Fantastically Wrong” column for Wired:
They say that money doesn’t grow on trees, but technically it does grow on a plant. Our greenbacks, you see, are 75 percent cotton. If you haven’t actually seen a cotton plant before, here’s how it works. It’s a remarkable little shrub, with a bundle of leaves at its base and a long stem shooting skyward. And at the top of this stem is a lamb, which swings around hopelessly like a furry tetherball.
Or so goes the story of the bizarre Vegetable Lamb of Tartary. Also known as the barometz, derived from the Tartar word for lamb, this was a useful little creature that Europeans in the Middle Ages–aware that cotton was a thing that arrived from India, yet unaware exactly how it grew–decided was the source of their newfangled threads.
According to 19th-century naturalist Henry Lee, who penned an exhaustive 60-page treatise on the history of the vegetable lamb, in Europe this legend “met with almost universal credence from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries.” Its source, it seems, was the Middle Ages’ most famous traveler, Sir John Mandeville, whose fantastical accounts of his roamings abroad in the 1300s led to no small number of misconceptions back in England.
Mandeville writes in Middle English, so I’ll go ahead and just paraphrase for you: In Tartary (what is now Russia and Mongolia), there grows a plant that produces gourds, and from these issue forth tiny lambs, which men eat. Mandeville, who likely made up a good chunk of his travels and pulled from reference material instead, wrote that in his experience, they are quite delicious. So based on vegetable lambs not actually existing, we can confirm that Mandeville was somewhat of a liar. (Jorge Luis Borges, in his Book of Imaginary Beings, refers to him hilariously as “the problematic Sir John Mandeville.”)
There are advantages to being born out of a plant instead of an animal. For instance, plants can’t tell you to clean your room or finish your vegetables.
Two variations of the barometz myth circulated in the Middle Ages…
[continues at Wired]