School's apple seedlings victim to laws of nature

Gifts to St. John's College tied to Isaac Newton die after two years

May 16, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The seedlings that sprouted from an imaginative and symbolic Class of '99 graduation gift to St. John's College - an apple linked to Sir Isaac Newton - have died, much to the disappointment of the college, where Newton is required reading.

The would-be trees had an unusual heritage: seeds of an apple plucked from a descendant of the tree that inspired Newton's theory of gravity.

That apple had delighted the small liberal arts college, which combines the quirky and the historical, and asks its students to apply the classics to modern life. The Annapolis college, known for its "great books" curriculum, is one of the few schools where every junior reads Newton's Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis, the tome that is a basis for modern math and science.

"It would have been nice to have, in a literal sense, the fruition of the idea," said Harvey M. Flaumenhaft, St. John's dean.

"It was a kind of lovely symbol of a link between the present and the past out of which we grow, and the world of living things and the world of thought that sometimes seems to be a little remote from what is around us," he said. It also symbolized the ties between America and England, he said.

In 1666 - 30 years before St. John's was founded - Newton was staying at Woolsthorpe, his mother's estate, to avoid the bubonic plague. Depending on which version one believes, he either sat beneath a Flower of Kent apple tree and was clunked in the head by falling fruit, or was sitting near the tree and watched an apple plop to the ground.

The Class of `99 Johnnies - as the students refer to themselves - paid the estate $30 to ship what turned out to be a bigger-than-softball-size mealy piece of fruit containing two seeds.

The cultivation job went to Mollie Ridout, horticultural chief at Historic London Town and Gardens, the Colonial-era landmark in Edgewater.

The fraternal twin seedlings that sprouted in 2000 had a Mutt and Jeff look - one a tall stick with light green leaves, the other a 5-inch twig with dark green leaves.

But last year, they shriveled. By the end of the growing season, Ridout said, it was obvious that neither naked stick would rebound. She informed college officials when they called recently.

Ridout doesn't know why the seedlings died. A fungus is possible, but more likely, the apple "was not very vigorous genetic material," she said.

Transplanting a cutting onto roots is the better way to produce apple trees, Ridout said. Also, grafting replicates the original tree. In contrast, with only one parent of an apple seed known, the resulting hybrid may be a genetic dud.

"But we gave it our best shot," she said.

The larger class gift was a music library fund.

St. John's also was home to the last Liberty Tree, under which Colonists fomented revolution in the 1700s and Johnnies graduated more recently. The tree, badly damaged by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, had to be cut down. But the college has an offspring of it.

Though officials had looked forward to having a descendant of another famed tree on campus, they have no plans to seek another apple.

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