Newton apple proves a hit

St. John's alumni gift grows from a seed to seedling

`Our sense of continuity'

July 24, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

It's starting to look as though St. John's College will have an apple tree descended from the one that led Sir Isaac Newton to ponder gravity.

Fraternal twin seedlings sprouted from the Class of '99's gift to the Annapolis campus - a Flower of Kent apple from Newton's mother's estate in England - much to the delight of the college and the relief of the horticulturist.

A gift tied to Newton is close to the heart of the college, known for its "Great Books" curriculum and for blending the quirky with the traditional. Newton's "Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis," a foundation of modern math and science that is more often read about than read, is required junior-year reading.

"That we will have a seedling from a Newton apple tree is reassuring to our sense of continuity," said Dean Harvey M. Flaumenhaft. "We've lost the Liberty Tree, but we have its 110-year-old offspring. With the baby apple tree, we'll have another that will represent the St. John's traditions."

When the apple was donated, school officials said any offspring of the Newton apple was not meant to replace the school's 400-year-old Liberty Tree, which was cut down in October after storms left it ailing.

The college and the seeds' grower, London Town House and Gardens, agreed that if two saplings survived, the historic site in Edgewater could keep one in exchange for the propagation work done by Mollie Ridout, horticulture director.

"We were obviously hoping that at least one would grow," said Kelly O'Malley, who coordinated the class gift and has kept abreast of the seeds' status. "That's great."

The two potted seedlings have a "Mutt and Jeff" appearance. One is a spindly foot and a half tall with saw-toothed, light green leaves. The other is barely 4 inches tall, with a thatch of deeper green, smoother-edged leaves.

"There are some obvious genetic differences between them," Ridout said.

A graft would have yielded a duplicate of the parent tree. But the seedlings are a mix of varieties, with only one Flower of Kent parent.

"We don't know who the other parent is" or if either will grow to resemble the Flower of Kent, Ridout said.

The seedlings have a distinguished scientific pedigree.

In 1666, Newton was at his mother's estate near Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire, England, when Trinity College closed because of the bubonic plague. According to legend, he was hit by a falling apple as he sat beneath a tree. Contemplating that, he developed the theory of gravitation.

But, according to his contemporaries, Newton only watched the apple fall. Observing that objects always fall straight to earth inspired Newton to propound the theory of gravity.

Grafts from tree

Grafts were taken from that tree before it was cut down in 1820. The gift apple came from a grafted descendant.

Responding to an inquiry from the students, the curator of Newton's mother's estate promised an apple for the price of postage - about $30.

The apple arrived in Maryland last fall. Ridout described it as "the biggest apple I've ever seen. Also the ugliest."

Not only was it a little larger than a softball, but after a trans-Atlantic trip and a month in a London Town refrigerator, the mottled red and yellow globe was lumpy, mealy, overripe and tasted dreadful. At the height of ripeness, it might not have been tasty anyway: The Flower of Kent is a cooking variety.

Cutting it open revealed that the tree put its effort into mammoth fruit, not into offspring. The apple had only two seeds, which, Ridout said, put the pressure on her to get at least one to sprout.

The seeds wintered in wet sand in two refrigerators - one in a London Town office and one at Ridout's home - out of fear that keeping both in the main kitchen at London Town would tempt disaster, that a fire would consume the building or that someone would accidentally throw them out.

March germination

In March, the seeds germinated. A relieved Ridout potted them and put them in the greenhouse.

In May, they were moved outdoors. The seedlings share a cage with heirloom white tuberoses and tall goldenrod, and modern toad lilies and red fern-leafed peonies - which need protection from critters that would eat them.

They'll spend next winter under a blanket for warmth.

"By next year, they probably will be able to come out of the cage and go into a 2-quart pot," Ridout said.

They might flower as early as next spring, though fruiting may not come for a year or more after that. Ridout expects they will reach a height of 3 to 4 feet by the time they are 3 years old.

One may be ready for planting at St. John's then. A college committee will select the location.

The other tree would join an heirloom orchard in the making at London Town. Ridout has 10 potted young apple trees, varieties from Colonial times when apples were crucial produce.

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