Apple trees from Isaac Newton’s bring ‘magic’ to universities around the world

Newton’s trees combine history, science, folklore and legend, which makes them enchanting

On a cold, sunny day in December, Jean-Michel Poutissou paused to admire the six apple trees that he once fought to save.

Poutissou came to Vancouver in October 1972 when the trees on the campus of physics laboratory TRIUMF were mere saplings. The trees are scions of the same tree that Sir Isaac Newton is said to have sat under as he pondered gravity.

Poutissou, a researcher emeritus at TRIUMF, said the trees “were happily growing” until the mid-1990s when condo developers wanted a straight road from the campus to the homes. The trees were in danger of being axed.

“Nobody (involved in the development) cared too much about Newton apple trees,” he said. “For them, they were in the way.”

It took a campaign to convince the president of the University of British Columbia, where TRIUMF is located, to intervene and save the roundabout where the trees are planted, he said.

Now nearly 50 years old, the trees are covered in buds that will fatten over the winter before bursting into fruit.

Poutissou said he’s tasted the apples but that was a long time ago and he doesn’t remember their exact flavour.

“It’s not quite unlike a McIntosh but don’t hold me to that,” he said with a laugh.

The trees’ journey began sometime in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Letters between the University of British Columbia and the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, England, show that on the day two grafts of the trees arrived in Vancouver on an Air Canada flight on Jan. 4, 1971, the ground was covered in more than 50 centimetres of snow.

The two cuttings were further grafted and now six trees sit on the TRIUMF campus.

Today, the National Trust in the U.K. is the custodian of the original apple tree at Woolsthorpe Manor, where Newton considered the laws of gravity. The tree is called Flower of Kent, a traditional variety, which produces cooking apples of varying sizes.

An email from the organization says there are many universities around the world that have twins of the original tree. It’s not known how the idea to send universities Newton’s apple trees came about and there doesn’t seem to be a tradition or policy, it says.

“It’s likely this was spread more by word of mouth between universities.”

The tree is an icon of learning, discovery and the start of the era of modern science, the trust says.

In 1820, a storm blew over the original tree, but it survived and continued to grow new roots, the organization says.

Seeds from its descendants have also defied gravity and made a trip to space, thanks to Robert Prince, professor emeritus of the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University in Toronto.

Astronaut Steve MacLean was Prince’s student. He was assigned to a space flight in 2006 and his former teacher had a task for him. He wanted MacLean to take a picture of an apple floating over his head.

“I had this idea of doing something rather humorous with this apple over his head and staying and not falling like Newton’s theory of microgravity,” Price said in an interview.

When MacLean told Prince he wasn’t allowed to take fresh fruit because of contamination, the seeds were sent up instead.

Prince said the seeds are now in the possession of the physics department at York University.

“They may go on display at some point along with other MacLean’s artifacts.”

The trees on York’s campus were planted in 1999.

Originally three trees were planted but some didn’t survive because of the climate, while others were damaged. Only one took root.

“It survived and bore fruit quickly,” Prince said. “I was surprised at how quickly we got fruit off it.”

The apples are not very big. “Like a crabapple size,” he added.

There has also been an imposter of the Newton apple tree in Canada.

Two Newton apple trees at the National Research Council in Ottawa were thought to be grafts from the original tree that were sent over in the 1960s, but it was determined they were unrelated to the tree Newton sat under. The tree was a Newton’s apple, but a variety of the fruit.

Dick Bourgeois-Doyle, who exposed the imposter trees while working on a book for the council’s centennial celebrations in 2016, says he felt guilty having uncovered it.

His plan for a limited-edition coffee table book was going to include a memento from the apple tree: a leaf or a seed. During his research, he found that the twin from the original apple tree died possibly victims of disease or Ottawa winters, in the 1990s.

“It sort of popped a balloon because people had a lot of pride seeing those two trees and there’s a big bronze plaque in front of it here in Ottawa,” he said.

To be sure, he sent off leaf samples to an agricultural institute in England, which confirmed his research.

That year, he contacted York University and was sent a seedling from one of their Newton apple trees, which is growing at the research council.

Newton probably wasn’t clunked on the head with an apple but the tree is still a touchstone linked to a significant point in scientific history, Bourgeois-Doyle said.

Newton’s trees combine history, science, folklore and legend, which makes them enchanting, he said.

“If you can hold something in your hand or touch or look at something and that has a thread going back to Woolsthorpe Manor, it has a little bit of magic to it.”

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta has 3,651 active cases of COVID-19. (File photo)
432 new COVID cases sets another record Friday

Central zone holds steady at 126 active cases

The future site of the Rimbey Travel Centre. Web photo
New Rimbey development aims to capitalize on highway traffic

Phase I of the Rimbey Travel Centre would be along Hwy. 20, if approved

"We are looking seriously at the spread and determining what our next steps should be," says Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, as the daily number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb.
427 new COVID cases is highest in Alberta ever

Central zone has 126 active cases of COVID-19

soup
Rimbey FCSS to introduce the Cultural Community Kitchen

The Cultural Community Kitchen sessions will be held at the Rimbey Co-op

robbery
UPDATE: Shooting suspect arrested by Wetaskiwin/Camrose RCMP

Rimbey RCMP had responded to a complaint of an armed robbery at the Bluffton City General Store

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau. (Black Press Media)
VIDEO: One day until B.C. voters go to the polls in snap election defined by pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan’s decision to call an election comes more than a year ahead of schedule and during a pandemic

This photo provided by Air Force Reserve shows a sky view of Hurricane Epsilon taken by Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter team over the Atlantic Ocean taken Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.   Epsilon’s maximum sustained winds have dropped slightly as it prepares to sideswipe Bermuda on a path over the Atlantic Ocean.  The National Hurricane Center says it should come close enough Thursday, Oct. 22, evening to merit a tropical storm warning for the island.  (Air Force Reserve via AP)
Hurricane Epsilon expected to remain offshore but will push waves at Atlantic Canada

Epsilon is not expected to have any real impact on land

A voter places her absentee ballot in the ballot box, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Robert F. Bukaty
American voters living in Canada increasingly being counted in presidential race

The largest number of Canadian-based American voters cast their ballots in New York and California

A composite image of three photographs shows BC NDP Leader John Horgan, left, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Sept. 25, 2020; BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau, centre, in Victoria on Sept. 24, 2020; and BC Liberal Party Leader Andrew Wilkinson Pitt Meadows, B.C., on Sept. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck, Chad Hipolito
British Columbia votes in snap election called during COVID-19 pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan called the snap election one year before the fixed voting date

Nunavut's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, on Tuesday June 30, 2020. The annual report from Nunavut's representative for children and youth says "complacency and a lack of accountability" in the territory's public service means basic information about young people needing services isn’t tracked. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Nunavut’s young people ‘should be expecting more’ from government services: advocate

‘The majority of information we requested is not tracked or was not provided by departments’

Ryen Williams, 11, with a lost miniature horse at JJ Collett Oct. 23. Photo by Don Williams
UPDATE: Owners found

Father and son found him while out for a walk at JJ Collett

A Le Chateau retail store is shown in Montreal on Wednesday July 13, 2016. Le Chateau Inc. says it is seeking court protection from creditors under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act to allow it to liquidate its assets and wind down its operations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Clothing retailer Le Chateau plans to close its doors, files for CCAA protection

Le Chateau said it intends to remain fully operational as it liquidates its 123 stores

U.S. border officers at the Peace Arch crossing arrested two men on California warrants this week. (File photo)
Ottawa predicts system delays, backlogs unless court extends life of refugee pact

Canada and the United States recognize each other as safe places to seek protection

Conservative member of Parliament Michelle Rempel Garner, left to right, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen arrive to hold a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
No-confidence showdown over sweeping Tory motion on government handling of pandemic

The Conservative motion is to be put to a vote Monday and has the support of both the Bloc Québécois and NDP

Most Read