News | July 2, 2024

Cuttings From Dr Johnson's Willow Planted in New York State and Pennsylvania

Lichfield District Council

Robert DeMaria Jr, Professor of English at Vassar College and scholar on the life and works of Samuel Johnson, plants a cutting.

Special planting ceremonies held in the United States are hoped to result in the regeneration of an historic tree admired by groundbreaking essayist and lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson.

Cuttings from the tree, known as Johnson’s Willow, have been planted at Vassar College in New York State and at Graeme Park in Pennsylvania through a collaboration between Lichfield District Council in England and The Johnson Society which encourages interest in and study of the writings, life and times of Lichfield’s most famous son.

Sitting at the side of Stowe Pool, the Willow was a favourite of the writer and he always visited it when returning to the city as an adult. Originally planted around 1700, the fifth generation of the tree was planted at the pool in 2021 after nurturing by Lichfield District Council community gardener Paul Niven. In 2022, cuttings from the fourth generation tree, which had come to the end of its natural life, were sent to the United States for planting.

The project was inspired by 18th century American poet Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, who read of the tree, wrote Two Odes on the Litchfield Willow (1787) and expressed a wish that a cutting would get to America. The first verse of her second Willow Ode runs:

Oh may we hope some tender twig, 
The Willow well can Spare, 
Some thriving, blooming, verdant, Sprig; 
May yet be wafted Here! 

Following two years in quarantine with the US Department of Agriculture a cutting has now been planted at Vassar College by Robert DeMaria Jr, Professor of English, President of The Johnson Society and scholar on the life and works of Johnson.
A second cutting was planted at Fergusson’s former home Graeme Park, near Philadelphia in Pennsylvania.

“We are very pleased to make this connection between Vassar and Lichfield and to have a living memorial of Johnson on campus," said Professor Robert DeMaria Jr. "The great Johnsonian Mary Hyde Eccles graduated from Vassar in 1934 - she would surely have been pleased by this additional connection. Johnson too, we speculate, would be pleased because Vassar may be seen as fulfilling the wish of Nekayah in Rasselas [from Johnson’s book The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia: 1759] to found a college for women, 102 years after Johnson imagined it.”

Lichfield Community Gardener Paul Niven said: “Having previously propagated the 5th Johnson’s Willow which currently stands at Stowe Pool in Lichfield, I was asked to investigate the possibility of exporting cuttings to the United States. After nearly three years of work, I am thrilled with the planting of cuttings taken by myself of Salix x fragilis var. russelliana, known as Johnson’s Willow in Lichfield. I hope by exporting cuttings of the tree, this will give a living piece of old England to places of culture and learning with connections to Samuel Johnson in the ‘New World’.”

John Winterton of The Johnson Society added: “The idea for this project came to me in 2019, when I was editing Fergusson’s Willow odes, and I am very grateful to Paul Niven, Bob DeMaria and everyone else who has helped with it since then. Fergusson would surely be delighted that her wish has finally been fulfilled, even though it has taken 237 years to achieve.”

Ceremonies in honour of the plantings are planned to take place in September 2025.