Potemkin Sheep

IMAGE: Vegetable sheep, New Zealand, via Purse Lip Square Jaw.

New Zealand is famous for its sheep. In the early eighties, there were apparently twenty-two sheep in New Zealand for every human, although, by 2008, Meat and Wool New Zealand revealed that this ratio had dropped precipitously, down to just eight sheep per human, “due to drought and the expansion of dairying.”

Sheep are not indigenous to New Zealand, however: they were introduced in the early 1800s by British settlers. Bizarrely, the landscape was already covered in off-white, wooly, bobbly sheep-like plants, which the settlers promptly named “vegetable sheep.” Like the phantom armies of General Patton, or the fake Crimean villages built to fool Catherine the Great, the vegetable sheep can, at least at a distance, confuse shepherds and their dogs:

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 Intellectual Observer: Review of Natural History, Microscopic Research and Recreative Science, Volume XI, pp. 128-135, London: Groombridge and Sons, 1867.

IMAGE: The Canterbury vegetable sheep on display at the Auckland Museum; it is apparently “quite firm to walk on.”

IMAGE: Capturing the vegetable sheep for museum display, via Purse Lip Square Jaw.

The plants are members of the daisy family, specifically Raoulia mammillaris and Raoulia eximia, “which as densely compacted, rounded cushion plants grow to several feet across and sometimes 2 ft high.” The Auckland Museum boasts a yellowed specimen with a fresh weight of 61kg – you can read an ode written to mark its successful “capture” here.

NOTE: I first encountered vegetable sheep on Purse Lip Square Jaw, a blog written by designer and academic Anne Galloway. The quote and two of the images above come directly from her post.
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One Comment

  1. Posted February 12, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    These things are cool – they feel firm and felty, but they’re incredibly dense, and they have hollow bits inside. It’s pretty hard to mistake them for sheep though, even from a distance.

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