This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V20", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
In a recent number of the Monthly, you made inquiry concerning the introduction of the Weeping Willow into New England, and also about the Napoleon Willow, introduced by Capt. Jacob Smith, into Rhode Island.
It was in the year 1826 that Captain Smith, who had touched at St. Helena on his homeward voyage from the East Indies, presented a plant of Weeping Willow to a gentleman of this city, (the late well known and much respected Thomas P. Ives, Esq.), who had it planted in his garden. It was a slip taken from the tree, growing over Napoleon's grave in that island, which the Captain planted and brought home in a nail keg. This I learned from the person who set out the tree. I saw this tree, for the first time, in 1844. It was then a vigorous and shapely tree, the parent of a numerous progeny, and an object of no small interest.
In the month of December, 1866, it fell to me as gardener, to take down this notable tree. It had become much decayed, and was in danger of being blown down at any time, to the damage of surrounding objects.
When prostrate, the trunk presented a singular spectacle. The interior for many feet from the ground was completely rotten. Much of this decayed mass had become genuine vegetable mould. Into this, the tree in its efforts to live, had sent numerous rootlets. One of these was seven or eight feet long, thicker than a hoe handle, penetrating and rooting firmly in the ground. The tree, two feet from the ground, was thirteen feet in circumference, about sixty-five feet in height. The expanse of branches was also about sixty-five feet.
For aught I know; Captain Smith may have introduced other trees besides this one, but I never heard of any other.
The Napoleon Willow was introduced into Britain in 1823. In Loudon's Hortus Britanicus, published in 1830, it is put down as a distinct species (Salix Napoleona) and as an evergreen house plant or tree! But coming from a tropical island, and being then but comparatively of recent introduction, this is not much to be wondered at. Before the above period (1830), my father planted a specimen of it in the gardens he had charge of, in the south of Scotland, which I think Mr. Loudon must have seen hardy and thriving, the following year, when he visited the gardens in his tour throughout the country "taking notes." I remember him well, and the sensation he used to make amongst the gardeners upon such occasions. But withal, he was a worthy and a talented man - a great friend of gardeners and gardening.
The Napoleon Willow is now, I believe, very generally considered merely a variety of the old Weeping Willow, Salix Babylonica, introduced into England in 1692 from the Levant. Travelers say it still adorns the banks of the Euphrates, as in the days of Daniel and the captivity of Judah, when it was immortalized in the language of one of the most beautiful and pathetic of the inspired Psalms.
I am not sure whether the Weeping Willow is indigenous to St. Helena or not, but incline to believe it was introduced to the Island from England during the latter half of the last century, when a great variety of all sorts of trees and shrubs were introduced, including even Furze and Scotch pine, for fuel and also protection in exposed situations. I was well acquainted with a person who could have easily informed me, and have often felt sorry I never inquired of him concerning the Napoleon Willow. This was Mr. William Thomson, with whom I worked many a day, some forty odd years ago, in Messrs. Dickson & Co.'s nursery, Edinburgh. He spent a number of years as a soldier on the island, and having been brought up to gardening before joining the army, he was detailed to look after the grounds around Longwood house, the abode of Napoleon during his exile. These grounds he said were nothing very extra, consisting of some sort of a lawn, with walks, some trees, shrubs and a few flowers. Mr Thomson could tell much about the island, its productions and the exiled Emperor, whom it would appear, manifested but very little interest in gardening affairs (as indeed it could not be expected he should in his then situation;) walking, however, much around the grounds, and often at a quick pace, seldom meeting or speaking to any one, being seemingly always absorbed in deep thought.
When Napoleon's remains were removed to France, many years ago, I remember Mr. Loudon considered the Willow that grew over his grave an object of sufficient interest to cause him to apply to the Government to have it properly cared for.
As to the introduction of the Weeping or Babylonian Willow into New England, from all I can learn or judge of, I think it must have been introduced in Colonial times. Large and very old specimens abound in many places. The common yellow branched or Golden Willow, Salix vitellina, the Hawthorn, the. Lilac, the Sweet Briar or Eglantine, and even the Barberry and many other trees, shrubs and plants, undoubtedly were very early introduced from old England. The largest Hawthorn tree, I think, I ever saw, was growing and thriving in this city a few years ago. It had to be cut down to make way for a new street. It must have been, judging by its appearance, nearly two hundred years old. In fact the early settlers of New England with true English instinct, appear to have had much more taste for gardening and love of Nature than is generally supposed. Endeavoring to introduce whatever was useful, familiar and loved by them at home, or that would remind them of the old ancestral land. Many of these are now found in a wild state all over the country, making it difficult to determine whether they are indigenous or not.
But I must stop this. I have digressed and transgressed enough. I am happy to see the Monthly improving and growing. I have taken it from the beginning, and could not do without it now by any means. There is always something in it for the novice and the proficient, the amateur and the professional, the simple and the scientific. I hope you will continue to give us a few more of your European notes. They are vastly more valuable than many people's notes these hard times. What has become of your correspondent Mr. Harding, who used to give us such interesting and valuable accounts of his travels in Australia, etc.? I should like to see some more of the same from him again. [We have one from Mr. H. to appear soon. Ed].