Vegetable Sheep

I’m doing some historical research right now on human-animal relations, especially those among sheep herders, their flocks and their dogs, and I’ve been completely charmed by New Zealand’s vegetable sheep.

[photo credit: Roger Makepeace]

Not to be confused with the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, vegetable sheep are actual plants of the Raoulia species. This “densely compacted, rounded cushion plant grow to several feet across and sometimes two feet high … and the white colour of its flowers and also of the hairy covered leaves gives it the appearance, from a distance, of sheep.”

[Figure 108 Large cushion of the Marlborough vegetable sheep, Haastia pulvinaris. Mt. Cupola, Nelson Lakes National Park. Photo: J. W. Dawson.]

[Figure 109 Close view of a portion of a Haastia pulvinaris cushion showing the branchlet tips closely invested by woolly leaves. Photo: J. W. Dawson.]

“On the shingle-slips the wonderful vegetable-sheep are encountered. These grow not on the shingle, but on the rocks which the stones have nearly buried. Large examples form great hummocks, 6 ft. long by 3 ft. across, or even more. Really they are shrubs of the daisy family, and are provided with a thick, stout, woody main stem and strong roots, which pass far into the rock-crevices. Above, the stems branch again, and again, and towards their extremities are covered with small woolly leaves, packed as tightly as possible. Finally, stems, leaves, and all are pressed into a dense, hard, convex mass, making an excellent and appropriate seat for a wearied botanist … The vegetable-sheep are not inaptly named, for at a distance a shepherd might be misled.”

— L. Cockayne, New Zealand Plants and Their Story, Wellington: Government Printer, 1910

“Though singular and interesting to the botanist, these plants are of no value economically, but, on the contrary, as we have shown, certain species of them are a plague to the shepherds, inasmuch as they give them much trouble and annoyance to discern between an animal sheep and a vegetable sheep.”

— John R. Jackson, “The Vegetable Sheep of New Zealand,” The Intellectural Observer: Review of Natural History, Microscopic Research and Recreative Science, Volume XI, pp. 128-135, London: Groombridge and Sons, 1867.

Cross-posted at plsj