This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V23", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
A tradition concerning the origin of the beautiful weeping willow trees of our country and England was recently published in one of our popular juvenile publications, and republished in the Ledger. It was a pleasant little story, but, referring as it did to a matter of scientific and historic interest, we thought it worth while to consult scientific and historic authority on the subject. The result was a very interesting letter from Mr. Thomas Meehan, arboriculturist, and editor of the Gardener's Monthly, from which we extract the following passages:
Only for the fact that popular writers seldom take the trouble to go to a horticultural library to ascertain whether their notions are true or not, one might be surprised at the statement made in the slip you send me. Fancies like these are so often passed off for truths that those who know better seldom take pen to correct them, in despair of reforming these loose habits of handling truth. I never could see why general literature ought not to demand as rigid accuracy in the statement of a fact as we expect from a person in private life, but it is unfortunately not so. Libraries - first-class libraries - are now within the reach of intelligent persons, and there is no excuse for the indifference about ascertaining the facts we so often see. It is very pleasant to have the editor of the Ledger on the side of carefulness, and I answer the questions put to me with great pleasure.
First, even the history of the so-called anecdote of Pope is not correctly rendered. Green gives it thus: Pope's willow "came from Spain, inclosing a present to Lady Suffolk. Mr. Pope was in her ladyship's company when the covering was taken off, and observed These pieces of stick appear as if they had some vegetation,' and added, ' Perhaps they may produce something we have not in England.' " This " covering " is generally understood to be what in England is known as a "hamper basket," made of willows. This would be more likely than to find a small twig of a weeping willow alive in a box of figs, the last place in the world to find a live twig or a twig of any kind, unless, perchance, a small, dry piece of the poet's bay, the leaves of which are often used by the Italians to garnish the better class of dried figs. Even the original story is certainly apocrypha], the belief in which might be excusable a hundred years ago, as the means of gaining personal knowledge was not as great as now. Everyone familiar with the weeping willow knows that the wood is very brittle. It is one of the curious but yet frequent contradictions of nature that the most opposite properties should often be found in closely related families.
Willows are in many species used for basket work, but it would puzzle even the celebrated Philadelphia basket makers to make anything of a job with the branches of a weeping willow.
But if Pope was anything of an expert in the knowledge of rare plants, which his reported exclamation would lead us to suppose, he must have been a careless fellow, for at this very time (1772), as reported, a large weeping Willow tree was growing at Hampton Court, which, if I rightly remember a walk I once took from Pope's villa to this place, could not be more than three or four miles away. In Plukenet's " Phytographia," published in 1691, is a drawing, taken, as he says, from this tree at Hampton Court, and which must have been there some years before. It is more than likely that Pope's willow was a cutting from that tree, and that the story, as given, like so many others of this class, is an afterthought, which never occurred to any one till after the tree became famous. The successor in the ownership of Pope's villa was Earl Stanhope, who happened to have a strong turn for plants and flowers. He probably had the story from some old servant of the place, and believed in it without question. I have heard just this sort of wonderful thing from these old family retainers, and know just how much most of them are worth. Pope's willow did not become famous till Lord Stanhope's time.
He distributed cuttings freely everywhere, and it is a matter of certain history that some were sent in 1769 to the Empress of Russia. In 1799 the tree was cut down.
Coming to the American part of the story, I doubt very much whether any one in those early days ever thought of wrapping cuttings in "oiled silk." It is solely a modern American idea, and even now - just now - after about ten or twelve years of American use, the English papers are recording as a remarkable fact that plants have been sent safely by mail "across the kingdom" by its use. But, grant this, it would take a week, perhaps, before the young British officer, in Boston, in 1775, got with this Twickenham twig to sea, six weeks to cross the ocean, a week, at least, to get to duty fairly, and we do not know how many weeks before he gave up the hope of settling on the confiscated lands of rebels, and concluded he had better give the carefully prepared twig to young Custis. It would, indeed, have to be carefully prepared to stand a trial like this. Any horticulturist could have saved Mr. Lossing from being misled by a story like this.
Supposing, however, that there was a tree at Abingdon, the statement that it was the parent of all the weeping willows in the United States is as unsupported as the rest. It is not easy to fix just when the weeping willow was introduced into the United States. Nurserymen then, as now, were continually importing, and no doubt as many claims could be put in for its first introduction as for the discovery of the late comet. Certain it is, that it was abundant throughout American gardens long before this young officer arrived. Works published before the Revolution speak of it as a matter of course. McMahon's "Gar-dening," describing how to beautify the grounds, says, "On the verges of large compartments of water, some Babylonian or weeping willows will have a very agreeable effect." Pursh, who in the beginning of the present century was gardener with Hamilton at the Woodlands, and spent some years at the expense of Dr. Barton in traveling through the country, published in London in 1814 the first complete flora of the United States, and he reports in this that he found it to be abundant everywhere in the Union, that the history of its introduction was then completely lost, and he was half inclined to believe it might be indigenous.
This brings us to the real history of the weeping willow. There is no doubt now about being a native of China and Japan. Represen-tations of it are frequent on all Chinese poree-lain. The form under culture is the female one, and have all been propagated from one individual tree. It is somewhat different from the male form, which is Salix japonica. In Japan it is known as "Yanagi," as I learned from the Japanese Commissioners during the Centennial, and not "Angaki," as stated by Thunberg. How did it first get to Europe? Caspar Bauhin, wrote a book about plants in 1671, refers to it as "Salix Arabica, with leaves like a chenopodium," and gives Rauwolf as the one who made him acquainted with it. Rauwolf was a celebrated Dutch traveler. The Dutch were for a long time the only Europeans allowed to trade with China. It is highly probable that the Dutch brought it to Europe, and, with the intimate relations with Holland which sprung up with the advent of the Prince of Orange to England, the weeping willow made its way to the Royal Palace at Hampton Court. At any rate, this was the first willow known in Europe, and nothing is yet positively known as to how that plant came there.
The name Babylonian willow is a poetical fiction, and comes from a mistranslation of the Bible version. The willow is wholly a native of arctic or temperate climates. There were never any willows in Babylon of any kind, and harps could not be hung on them. The nearest ally to the willow there is a poplar - Populus Euphratica - but it is extremely improbable that harps were hung even on these. Those the most familiar with the flora of Ancient Babylon seem to have settled down to this, that our common oleander, of which they used large quantities in their gardens, was this tree of the Babylonians on which their harps were hung. But those who know of the deadly poisonous juices of this plant will be slow to believe that there was much handling indulged in, either by hanging harps on the branches, or otherwise. If we take the phrase as a figurative or poetical one, expressive of the sorrow that was involved by continued captivity, and the oleander as the expression of joy and happiness, we may find some ray of explanation.
At any rate, the translation "willow" is an unfortunate one, as it leads to much misconception of the surroundings of the Jews in those ancient times. - Public Ledger.