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A tree usually under 40 ft high, but up to 60 ft or even more if it lives long enough, the rugged trunk branching low and supporting a wide-spreading head of branches, the very slender terminal twigs of which hang down perpendicularly; these are glabrous except near the nodes. Leaves lance-shaped, with long, slender points, narrowed to the base, finely toothed, 3 to 4 in. long, 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 in. wide, slightly silky when young, soon quite glabrous, light green above, glaucous beneath; petiole about 3⁄16 in. long, downy in the groove on the upper side, otherwise glabrous. Stipules usually present on strong shoots, obliquely ovate or lanceolate, soon deciduous. Catkins always female on the commonly cultivated form, dense, slender, about 1 in. long, appearing in April with the young leaves, almost sessile, with one to three small leaves at the base; scales persistent, lanceolate-ovate, with a blunt or acuminate apex, yellowish, hairy towards the base and at the edge. Ovary almost sessile, ovoid, glabrous; style very short, stout; stigmas spreading, more or less two-lobed. Nectary one, posterior (between the ovary and the axis of the catkin), very short.
S. babylonica, at least in its typical state, is known only as a cultivated tree, introduced to Europe from the Near East in the first or second decade of the 18th century, perhaps some years earlier (see further below). The weeping forms by which it is chiefly known are doubtless mutants from some species of normal habit, but no such species is to be found wild anywhere in western or central Eurasia at the present time. The nearest ally of S. babylonica is S. matsudana (q.v.) of northern China, which indeed is part of S. babylonica as understood by botanists of the last century, and with good reason, for no one has yet advanced any convincing reason for regarding them as distinct species. The most likely hypothesis is that S. babylonica was brought from northern China along the ancient trade route to south-west Asia. In Tadjikstan, through which this route passed, there are at least three cultivated clones of S. babylonica, one of them male (Skvortsov, Ivi SSSR, pp. 114–5). In N.W. India and bordering Tibet male trees are by far the commoner and may well belong to a single clone, judging from the great similarity of herbarium specimens from that region. From the Near East, all the specimens seen (with the exception of some probable hybrids) are very like the female form of S. babylonica originally brought to Europe, which is the type of the species. But the centre of variation of the S. babylonica-matsudana complex, as might be expected, is in the Far East, where several cultivated forms have been given specific rank.
The first European to record the existence of S. babylonica was Sir George Wheeler, Bt, who saw it near Bursa in western Anatolia in 1676; it has even been suggested that he introduced it to Britain, as he did Hypericum calycinum and H. olympicum. The earliest botanical mention of the weeping willow is to be found in Tournefort’s Corollarium, in which that great French botanist recorded the plants he found during his journey in the Levant (1700–2); he too has been credited with its introduction. According to Peter Collinson, the original weeping willow was brought to England about 1730 by ‘Mr Vernon, Turkey Merchant at Aleppo, from the river Euphrates, and planted at his seat at Twickenham Park, where I saw it in 1748’. It is, however, open to doubt whether this tree was the ‘original’ in the sense of being the only source of the plants cultivated in Europe. The London nurserymen were offering it in 1730, and may well have imported it on their own account. The most famous tree in the 18th century grew in the garden of the poet Alexander Pope at Twickenham. There is a story that he was one day in the company of Lady Suffolk, when she received a parcel from Spain tied up by willow twigs, and that, noticing one of the twigs was alive, he begged it and planted it at Twickenham, where it grew into the celebrated weeping willow of his villa garden. This was certainly not the first Salix babylonica to be grown in this country, and it is probable that the plant came from Pope’s neighbour Vernon, or was simply bought from one of the London nurseries.
Linnaeus, author of the misleading name Salix babylonica, encountered the weeping willow in the Clifford garden at Hartecamp in the Netherlands, and described it in the Hortus Cliffortianus (1738). Unfortunately the tree there (and younger plants raised from it by layering) had not yet flowered, but there seems to be little doubt that Clifford’s willow was the common female clone. Linnaeus evidently believed that the weeping willow came from the ancient Babylon and was the willow of the Psalmist: ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. But, as is now well known, the ‘willows’ of Babylon, which was situated on the lower Euphrates, south of Baghdad, were Populus euphratica. The confusion arose because the name ‘gharab’, which in biblical times meant poplar, later came to signify willow, and was so translated when the vernacular versions of the Bible were compiled at the time of the Reformation.
S. babylonica is now cultivated in many parts of the world, but in Europe, at least in the colder parts, it has become a very rare tree, for it is by no means hardy, and even where it survives the average winter it may be damaged by spring-frost. As early as 1869 the German dendrologist Koch referred to it as a fast disappearing tree, and Elwes and Henry, writing early this century, could find only two examples of any size in Britain, both of them nearing the end of their lives. The various hybrids that came gradually to take the place of the original S. babylonica are discussed under S. × sepulcralis.
The Napoleon willow, of which so much has been written, was planted by the grave of Napoleon on St Helena after his death in 1821. There were several plants, which gradually died out. There is no doubt that they were typical S. babylonica, but the name “Salix Napoleonis” was used by unscrupulous nurserymen for other willows, to profit from the extraordinary magic of Napoleon’s memory in the decades following his death. For further information see the interesting article by U. Forskhufvud, Act. Hort. Gotoburg., Vol. 26, 5–18 (1963). The Napoleon willow that once grew at Kew was raised from a cutting brought home by the Kew collector Thomas Fraser in 1825. For an amusing account of the early history of this plant see the note by James Smith, a former Curator of Kew Gardens, in Gard. Chron. (1867), p. 105, or his book Records Roy. Bot. Gard. Kew (1880), pp. 261–2. This tree died in the drought of 1867, and no propagation from it has survived.