When the Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon wanted the actor, David Garrick, to hold a Jubilee in its town, it gave him a box carved from the wood of Shakespeare’s mulberry tree. ‘I have long made it my observation,’ wrote a newspaper correspondent sniffily, ‘that no gifts are in general so pernicious as those composed of wood.’
I might have said the same about a cutting from Dr Johnson’s willow, given to me by a friend last year. We are both members of the Samuel Johnson Society of Lichfield, and my friend is an expert on this tree, which stands by Stowe Pool in our small Staffordshire city. Its ancestor was planted around 1700 and became famous for two reasons: firstly, because it was unusually large, and, secondly, because it was the favourite tree of the great writer and lexicographer. As a boy, Sam Johnson played beneath its branches (the tree stood next to his father’s parchment factory) and he never failed to visit it on trips from London, calling it the delight of his early and waning life.
Much like Shakespeare’s mulberry, Johnson’s willow has had a rich afterlife. Following Johnson’s death in 1784, the First Willow became the focal point for literary pilgrimages, even spawning new works of literature. The 18th-century poet Anna Seward mentioned it several times in her writings, and, in 1785, an American writer called Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson penned ‘Two Odes on the Litchfield Willow’, in which she claimed the lineage of Johnson’s willow stretched back to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
By the early nineteenth century, the tree was decayed, which led to its being blown down by high winds in 1829. Here the legend might have ended, but the following year a Second Willow, grown from the cutting of the original, was planted in the same spot. This tree was destroyed in a great storm of 1881, and so another descendant was planted in 1898. The Third Willow survived until 1956, when it was found to be unsafe and subsequently felled, and the Fourth Willow (another relation) was planted in 1959, during celebrations on the 250th anniversary of Johnson’s birth. This tree was felled in October 2021, being in a state of decay, and the Fifth Willow took its place the following month.
Therefore, when my friend appeared one day in my garden, bearing a sapling in a pot, he was gifting me a cutting from the Fourth Willow: not only a direct descendant, but a plant that is biologically identical to the original tree.
The arrival of the cutting was initially a worry. I am not green fingered and had never picked up a trowel in anger. This little tree – so freighted with meaning – was now in my care and it not only symbolised a titan of English letters, but friendship itself. ‘Willows,’ said a neighbour breezily, ‘are impossible to kill’. But what if I did manage to slay this ‘vegetable and unparalleled wonder’?
The first thing my husband did was to order a slate nametag off the internet reading ‘Dr Johnson’s Willow’. I settled down to letting him look after the garden, while contributing verbally from afar. One day, insects were discovered to have eaten a good deal of the leaves. I flew into a panic while my husband removed them with his fingers on the grounds that pesticides might be harmful to the cat.
After that, something odd happened; I started to take an interest in my cutting of Johnson’s willow. I enjoyed sitting underneath its rapidly spreading branches, and I watered it regularly, sometimes even watering our other plants at the same time. On advice from friends, I bought slow-release food for the following year’s growing season and when the tree got an aphid infestation, I Googled non-chemical pesticides.
Reader, I became a gardener.
However, it’s nice to know that even if I do mess things up, the lineage will continue. The Parks Department of Lichfield District Council keeps a stock of Johnson’s willows which it carefully maintains. Cuttings were recently sent to the United States, where they’re being quarantined ahead of a planting at Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson’s former home in Philadelphia. Walsall Arboretum has a sapling. Other recipients include the Duke and Duchess of Bedford (Johnson’s tree is a Salix russelliana or Bedford Willow) and Buckingham Palace has been offered a plant to mark the Coronation of King Charles III.
There’s also a tradition of carving objects from the willow, similar to the many Shakespeare-related items made from the mulberry tree. On a research trip to Harvard University, I came across an exquisite figurine of Dr Johnson in the Houghton Library, carved from the wood of the Third Willow.
Meanwhile, I’ve enjoyed watching our cutting of the Fourth Willow sprouting catkins and I’ve got plans to add a bark mulch to the soil to help retain moisture (they are thirsty creatures). Dr Johnson could never have imagined his favourite tree would become emblematic of friendship, but it’s now the focus of an annual friendship walk, taking place in Lichfield every summer. ‘Friendships should be kept in constant repair’ he famously remarked.
And so, I might add, should willows.