Johnson's Willow
Johnson’s Willow

The fifth incarnation of an historic tree in Lichfield will be planted later this year, it has been confirmed.

Lichfield District Council and the Johnson Society have been working together to make sure Johnson’s Willow is regrown as the current tree reaches the end of its life. 

It grows to the side of Stowe Pool and is famous for having been Dr Samuel Johnson’s favourite tree when he lived in Lichfield in the 18th Century.

It has already been regrown three times using cuttings from each version.

The current Johnson’s Willow needs to be felled after a survey revealed extensive decay.

Cllr Iain Eadie, cabinet member responsible for parks, said:

“Although it’s sad to see this remarkable tree come down, we’re really pleased to be planting a new tree later in the year.

“Our community gardeners have been tending cuttings taken from the current tree, and will choose the strongest one to be planted in the autumn.

“This will become the fifth incarnation of Johnson’s Willow so future generations will be able to enjoy this historic tree for years to come.”

Cllr Iain Eadie, Lichfield District Council

A ceremony is being planned to celebrate the replanting of Johnson’s Willow, which will include the reading of a poem penned by the winner of a competition run by the Johnson Society.

John Winterton, heritage liaison officer for the Johnson Society, said:

“The felling of the current Johnson’s Willow will be a very sad event, but is unavoidable in the circumstances.

“The good news is that the future of the tree will be secured by the planting of the fifth willow only some three months later – the shortest interval in the tree’s history.” 

John Winterton

Johnson’s Willow is expected to be felled in mid-August and a cutting will be planted in the same location in November when the site has been cleared.

The poetry competition is open to all and will see the winner receive £50, while two runners up will receive £25 and £15 respectively.

Eligible poems must:

  • be between 14 and 30 lines
  • focus on Johnson’s Willow
  • be suitable for reading at the ceremony

Entries can be emailed as Word files to p.jones201010@yahoo.co.uk by 5pm on 15th August.

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16 Comments

  1. Keeping it real here in Lichfield.
    No one has ever had, or ever will have a favourite tree.
    Food banks – sod it.
    Council 120k mess ups – **** it
    Town centre becoming devoid of shops – it’ll work out.
    Multi story Car park – we paid someone to fix it but now it needs fixing again.
    Leisure centre – let’s build a new one on public open space rather than upgrading the one we have or using reasonable land.

  2. Is Johnson’s favourite tree the same tree that is being replaced for the fifth time? It’s a cutting not a clone. It will look different. It sounds like Triggers road brush to me. Lasted him a lifetime and only had five new heads and three handles!

  3. Presumably poems do not have be sent as Word files. Unless they only want entries from people who have access to Microsoft Word. How about people simply put the poem in the email.

  4. Johnson’s interest in, and affection for, this tree are well documented; as for ‘no one has ever had, or ever will have a favourite tree’, Johnson’s Willow has been my favourite tree for 50 years, which somewhat invalidates that assertion!

    The tree belongs to a species called the ‘Bedford willow’ (salix x fragilis russelliana), a female-only clone which breeds true only from cuttings – which is exactly what is being done in this case, as has happened with each successive replanting of the tree since the first such occasion in 1830. The new tree will be a direct descendant of the original, and so I do not think that the ‘Trigger’s broom’ argument really applies, since the tree is effectively renewing itself.

    I hope most people will be pleased that action is being taken to perpetuate this unique feature of Lichfield’s heritage.

  5. Well there you go, we can look after one tree. Certainly doesn’t make up for the HS2 carnage around the outskirts of Lichfield

  6. Well John Winterton, Johnson went to London in 1737 (the tree died in 1830) so he saw much less of this tree than you have. If we are to perpetuate a myth then, in future, I will recognise it as the Winterton Willow in your honour for a lifetime devotion.

  7. Philip – thank you for your reply.

    If by ‘perpetuating a myth’ you are referring to Johnson’s connection with the tree, I can assure you that this is not the case. Johnson’s affection for, and interest in, the Willow are well attested by people who knew him. The Lichfield antiquary Richard Greene affirmed that Johnson ‘never failed to visit’ the tree whenever he returned to Lichfield (although he did indeed move to London in 1737, he frequently came back in later life). The poet Anna Seward referred in a letter to ‘Johnson’s favourite gigantic willow’. During a visit to Lichfield in 1781, Johnson asked Dr Trevor Jones to let him have a detailed account of the tree, which Jones duly supplied in a letter to Johnson dated 26 November 1781 (manuscript now at Harvard). I hope this clarifies the true position.

    And in response to others: no, replanting Johnson’s Willow will not expunge HS2, create a leisure centre, end poverty or accomplish anything else of the kind. It will, however, be a small but (in my view) worthwhile achievement in terms of preserving a part of Lichfield’s heritage which has been commemorated by authors and artists for well over 200 years. Previous generations of Lichfeldians took pride in maintaining this tradition. I hope we of this generation are not so far sunk in joysucking miserabilism that we sullenly refuse to celebrate anything until all the woes of our world have been rectified; if so, I fear we may all be in for rather a long wait.

  8. Your comments are of some interest John. Clearly Lichfield’s heritage has received scant regard from recent ‘City Fathers’. A much different attitude from those of former times.
    I do applaud the continued celebration of the willow, it is a fragment of a time that is now hard to contemplate. It would seem, however, that the original one was of prodigious proportions. Others since (clones or otherwise) seem to have been more of a normal size. In those times many massive trees were venerated. Oaks in particular attracted much attention. The famous Oaks of Needwood have some great poetry written about them. I will watch its progress with interest.

  9. Philip – many thanks for your very interesting remarks; I certainly share your enthusiasm for large and historic trees.

    You are certainly right about the First Willow; at its maximum size (in 1810), its trunk was 21 feet around. However, the Second Willow also attained a considerable size; in the summer of 1881 (only a few months before its destruction), a visitor measured its height as about 80 feet.

    The reason for the subsequent decline in size must, I think, be that the first two Willows stood in a marshy and well-watered environment; by the time the Third Willow was planted in 1898, however, Stowe Pool had been embanked, and so the tree was planted on the top of the embankment, as indeed was its successor. While this placement may have been the best option in the circumstances, it was hardly as conducive to the growth of a large Bedford willow as that of the first two trees.

    Notwithstanding this, however, the Fourth Willow did attain a respectable size before its pollarding in recent years; let us hope that its successor does at least as well!

  10. @Clare & Ann S – I totally agree that the HS2 devastation is appalling.

    But where in the article does it suggest that this is meant to be be some sort of mitigation? Can’t you be pleased about something totally unrelated, or does your unhappiness about HS2 mean that organisations such as the Johnson Society have to let their beloved tree die too?

  11. “I hope we of this generation are not so far sunk in joysucking miserabilism that we sullenly refuse to celebrate anything until all the woes of our world have been rectified; if so, I fear we may all be in for rather a long wait.”

    Beautifully put, John. I really should have read your response more carefully before I added my own lesser version :)

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