Rare Newton’s apple tree bears fruit for the first time

newton's apple

Look out for falling apples on York’s Keele campus: a rare descendant of Sir Isaac Newton’s famed apple tree has borne fruit for the first time.

“We were delighted and surprised to see we now have our own ‘Newton’s apple’ growing on our tree,” said York Professor Emeritus Michael Boyer, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science & Engineering, who has played a key role in the project since its beginnings in 2000.

In November of the same year, three tiny trees, grafted with cuttings from Newton’s original apple tree, were planted in the quadrangle adjacent to the Petrie Science Building. Earlier efforts by the National Research Council of Canada to plant a Newton’s Apple tree were thwarted because of Ottawa’s extreme winters.

The tree is an old variety known as the Flower of Kent. It likely originated from France and produces a pear-shaped fruit smaller than today’s popular varieties.

“The tree is still quite small, and the apple is about the size of a golf ball,” explained Boyer, who noted that the tree will eventually grow to a height of approximately 10-12 metres. “But it’s really quite amazing when you think about the genesis of it.”

The cuttings (or scions) made it to York in a rather circuitous way from Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire, England. The manor was Newton’s birthplace and the site of the famous story of the falling apple. After Newton’s death on March 20, 1727, the manor’s new owners transferred cuttings of the tree to Belton Park, Lincolnshire, a few miles away. From Belton Park, scions were transferred to the National Fruit Research Station in East Malling, Kent. The Agriculture Canada Quarantine Station in British Columbia later obtained some from East Malling and put them under a four-year quarantine. Still later, scions were shipped to York and grafted to a nurse tree on campus, and finally provided in the spring of 1998 to Siloam Orchards in Uxbridge, Ontario, which specializes in heritage varieties.

While this fledgling tree is the first to flourish in Canada (other than in research settings), some successful plantings exist in the US – at the State Wide Arboretum in Nebraska, for example – and in England at several locations including Trinity College, Cambridge and the University of York.

York’s efforts to plant the special Flower of Kent trees began almost a decade ago during an exchange to the University of York, UK, by Robert Prince, former dean of York’s Faculty of Pure & Applied Science (now the Faculty of Science & Engineering). While on the exchange, Prince met Newton scholar Richard Keesing, who, in addition to writing extensively on Isaac Newton and the history of the tree, had been instrumental in providing genetic material to the Nebraska site.

Prince’s hope was that the trees would provide a point of interest for science at York and a landmark for students and visitors alike who would begin the tradition of ‘I will meet you at Newton’s Apple tree.’

Boyer agreed: “As this tree continues to mature, we hope it is going to become a York landmark. It’s certainly well on its way.”