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The future of Johnson's Willow

Johnson's Willow 1
A significant willow tree by the side of Stowe Pool, known as Johnson’s Willow, needs to be reduced in size, after an inspection found evidence of decay, which could make it unsafe.

Lichfield District Council’s tree survey, which involved an external tree inspector assessing the health of thousands of trees on district council land, revealed that an important historical tree needs to be reduced in size.

The tree grows to the side of Stowe Pool and is famous for having been Dr Samuel Johnson’s favourite tree, when he lived in, and later revisited, Lichfield in the 18th century. For this reason, it is now called Johnson’s Willow, though in his time it was known as the Lichfield Willow. The tree was also of interest to other 18th century authors, including the Lichfield poet Anna Seward and the American poet Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, both of whom celebrated the tree in their work.

The tree has had to be regrown using cuttings three times over the years due to the first willow tree, which was thought to have been planted in 1700, being blown down in 1829. The second was destroyed in a storm in 1881, and the third cut down in 1956 as it was unsafe. The current tree was grown from a cutting of the previous (third) incarnation of Johnson’s Willow.

Now the tree survey has revealed that the fourth and current willow tree is coming to the end of its life.  The required works will involve removing its main branches, which will reduce the load on the decayed parts of the tree, but will not stop new shoots from growing from the trunk. However, when the reduction work is carried out, if the decay is found to be very widespread, the tree may need to be cut down immediately.

As the tree is historically significant, the council will take cuttings from it to grow a new Johnson’s Willow as near to the original spot as possible.

Councillor Iain Eadie, Cabinet Member for Operational Services, Leisure & Waste, said:

“We know how important and loved this tree is. But, as the tree is on a very popular and busy route alongside Stowe Pool, it poses a danger to visitors. Regretfully we have no other choice but to cut it back and keep a close eye on it, with a view to removing it if it deteriorates further.

“Our community gardeners are taking cuttings of the tree and will tend these carefully in Beacon Park’s nursery. If the tree does need to come down, we will choose the best specimen to plant at Stowe Pool to keep the fifth incarnation of Johnson’s Willow alive for future generations to enjoy.”

The council has kept the Johnson Society informed about the works to Johnson’s Willow and the likelihood of the tree coming down in the near future.  

John Winterton, a member of the Johnson Society, and the author of a history of Johnson’s Willow, said:

“Johnson’s Willow is a unique and important part of Lichfield’s heritage, and it is vital that its long and fascinating story continues. The decline of the current willow is extremely sad, but I am very pleased that the district council has recognised the need to perpetuate the tree by raising cuttings so that the fifth willow can be planted beside Stowe Pool when the time comes, thus maintaining this living link with Samuel Johnson and his age.”

Phil Jones, Chairman of the Johnson Society, said:

“The society fully endorses John’s comments and welcomes the opportunity to discuss the tree’s future with the council.”

In addition to the works to the willow at Stowe Pool, the tree survey recommended felling a number of mature trees at Beacon Park.

“We are the custodians of roughly 33,000 trees across the district, and we carry out the tree survey every three to five years to make sure that they are not at risk of losing large branches or of falling down.

“The survey has shown that a number of trees in Beacon Park need to be taken down. They are lovely, mature trees and we know they will be missed by park goers, but again we must put the safety of the public first and complete these necessary tree works,” added Cllr Eadie.

To find out more about Stowe Pool and Beacon Park, visit www.lichfieldhistoricparks.co.uk.

Posted on Monday 26th February 2018

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