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“On the western side of the Volga there is an elevated salt plain of vast extent, but wholly uncultivated and uninhabited. On this plain, which furnishes all the neighbouring countries with salt, grows the Boranez or Bornitsch. This wonderful plant has the shape and appearance of a lamb, with feet, head, and tail distinctly formed. Boranez, in the language of Muscovy, signifies a little lamb, [Kæmpfer says that the sheep of the country are called by the people dwelling on the borders of the Caspian Sea, Borannek ;] and a similar name is given to this fern. Its skin (continues Struys) is covered with a very white down, as soft as silk. The Tartars and Muscovites esteem it highly, and preserve it with great care in their houses, where I have seen many such lambs. The sailor who gave me one of these precious plants, found it in a wood, and had its skin made into an under-waistcoat. I learned at Astracan, from those who were best acquainted with the subject, that the lamb grows upon a stalk about three feet high; that the part by which it is sustained is a kind of navel, and that it turns itself round, and bends downwards to the herbage which serves for its food. They also said that it dries up, and pines away, when the grass fails. To this I objected, that the langour and occasional withering might be natural to it, as plants are accustomed to fade at certain times. To this they replied, that they had also once thought so, but that numerous experiments proved the contrary to be the fact; such as cutting away, or by other means corrupting or destroying the grass all around it; after which, they assured me, that it fell into a languishing state, and decayed insensibly. These persons also added, that the wolves are very fond of these vegetable lambs, and that they devour them with avidity, because they resemble in taste the animals whose name they bear; and that, in fact, they have bones, blood, and flesh; and hence they are called zoophytes, i.e. plant-animals. Many other things I was likewise told, which might however appear scarcely probable to such as have not seen them." Struy's Travels, vol. ii. pp. 28–31.)
This wonderful tale of Struys, like many other similar stories, although very much perverted, is based on truth. The rhizoma of the Aspidium Baromez does present, when the fronds are removed, a rude resemblance in its shape to the figure of an animal. It is covered by a soft downy substance, which may be compared to a silky fleece, but from which no under-waistcoat could be made. This fleece is of a reddish-brown colour, and not white. Like the stems of other ferns, the inner parts are soft and pulpy ; and it so happens that they have something of a flesh colour, and that the sap is of a rich red hue, resembling blood. From these materials the fable has been composed; and from far less truth much more wonderful histories have sprung. Ferns often grow in barren soils; and, as these vegetable lambs are found on the salt plains, it is not improbable that in such situations they are often seen without grass in their vicinity: but that the herbage is consumed by the fern, or the plants devoured instead of lambs by wolves, although speculations which the wonder-seeking traveller might be tempted to indulge in, it need not be said are ornamental additions, introduced to suit the taste of the narrator, and to pander to that love of the marvellous which prevailed in the age in which he lived.
The Baromez possesses astringent properties, which are common to all ferns, in a somewhat greater degree than many other species. Hence it was formerly much in repute as a styptic, but it is now seldom, if ever, used. Fresh plants are often brought to the markets at Macao, but none have ever yet reached this country alive.
The Aspidia, or shield ferns, have been so named from the resemblance their indusia bear to little bucklers (actròCY). Aspidium fragrans has been employed as a substitute for tea; and Dr. Buchanan states that the roots of Nephrodium esculentum, one of the species in a subgenus of Aspidium, are eaten in Nipaul. Mathiole attributes to Aspidia the virtue of inspiring prophetic dreams.
In the language of Flowers, Fern is the emblem of Reverie.