Despite its sheep-like appearance, our latest ‘monstrum’ is a member of the vegetable family. This 18th-century engraving shows Polypodium barometz, a fern native to China, whose animal-like appearance and distant location caused much wonder and excitement among European travellers returning from the East, who reported stories of a fantastical plant/animal hybrid.
The Bodleian counted among its treasure a coat supposedly made from the skins of such wonderful creatures, known as vegetable lambs of Tartary or Scythian lambs. These reports caused much debate among seventeenth- and eighteenth-century botanists. Sir John Sloan wrote a definitive memoir about it for the Royal Society in 1699, firmly relgating the fern to the plant kingdom.