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Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

When I was told this story just outside Ordos City, the guides certainly didn't believe the tale. They seemed to take a kind of smug satisfaction that the western explorers who took this legend back to Europe came to such a ridiculous conclusion. I think it could possibly been a medieval Chinese/Mongol equivalent to the Scottish "Wild Haggis" story often told to mislead tourists!

When cotton first arrived in the west from eastern Asia via the fabled silk road, Europeans didn't quite know what to make of the new and exotic fabric. The merchants who sold it told the people it definitely came from a plant which grew far away in the east. Europeans, however, noticed the similarity of cotton to a material they were already familiar with wool. A legend developed to explain the existence of this new and valuable commodity.

People claimed that far away in distant Cathay (China) and Tartary (Central Asia) there grew a fantastic plant, a kind of fern. This fern was said to grow taller than a man and as the leaves of the plant unrolled they revealed a small but perfectly formed and living lamb, attached to the plant by a short membrane. The leave would gently allow the lamb to reach the ground so that it could graze on the grass surrounding the plant. Local merchants would come and sheer the lambs to collect their valuable wool. They knew they had to do this quickly, for when the lambs had eaten all the grass they would starve to death and the plant would wither and die. This plant was the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary.

Although this story was almost certainly invented to explain the existence of cotton, an actual plant could also have helped the legend of the Vegetable Lamb. In eastern Asia there exists a species of large fern, cibotium barometz, which has an unusually woolly rhizome. When the leaves of the fern are peeled away, the remaining plant looks strangely like a dead lamb. The name 'barometz' comes from the Persian word for sheep.


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