Why did people believe that sheep grew on trees? The truth of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

Despite sounding distinctly wooly, this was a real belief – presumably much to the bemusement of farmers tending their flocks

The fabled ‘Vegetable Lamb of Tartary’ was a plant said to grow sheep as its fruit.

The denizens of medieval Europe knew very little about the wider world, so could be convinced of some outlandish notions. Thanks to accounts like the 14th-century work, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville – a fantastical travelogue readily taken as fact – there were plenty who believed there was a type of plant that grew living lambs.

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The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary was found in central Asia, with the lamb hovering above the ground on a stalk and eating everything around the plant until it perished. According to those who ‘caught’ one, the lamb tasted like fish and had blood as sweet as honey.

But even though references to this specimen (which may have just been cotton with its white fluffy balls) go back to the fifth century BC, no one presented one as proof. Still, belief in the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary persisted until the 17th century.

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This content first appeared in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed