The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

vegetable-front.jpgI was out walking the dogs this weekend, and decided to take them to the community garden. Fall is the perfect time for them to visit the garden as no one cares if they romp through the plots. The garden lies nestled in the flood plain of the Little Miami River (which is odd considering I grew up near the Little Miami River, albeit two hours north of where I currently live). Besides the garden, there are cornfields and a small feeder creek – a veritable dog paradise.

When we got to the garden, I noticed white fluff in front of one of the garden plots. I was convinced that a goose or duck had met its end in the field. When I got to the mess, I noticed it wasn’t from an animal, but a plant. Someone had planted (what I took to be) cotton on their little plot. This is surprising for two reasons. 1.) They had torn up all the plants (cotton and all) and dumped them in a brush pile. 2.) I live in Ohio, which is not known to be prime cotton-growing country. In fact, this was my first time ever having seen cotton in the wild. I still wasn’t certain it was cotton, but I stuffed my pockets full, to investigate on the Internet when I got home.


It was most certainly cotton, and not only did I learn what it was, but I learned about the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary. Other than knowing it was from a plant, medieval Europeans had no idea what cotton looked like. Knowing that it was like wool, they assumed that cotton must come from a plant that grew sheep.

“There grew there [India] a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the endes of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie.” — John Mandeville, 1350

tinyskull1.jpgIntrigued by the concept of a sheep growing plant, I thought it would be fun to bottle a bit of the cotton as a scientific curiosity. I made a label using an illustration of the sheep tree, and another label that used the Mandeville quote. I also created a seal from the Accademia degl’ Investiganti, a 1600s scientific society. When I was done, I realized it was missing something — it just looked like a bottle of cotton wadding. I decided to sculpt a miniature sheep’s skull to place in the bottle. Mounted on the head of a pin to stay in place, it was inserted into the cotton.