In our spring magalogue, we featured an interview with Thomas Broom, Chief Horticulturalist at Petersham Nurseries.
One of the questions we asked him was ‘what is the most exclusive plant you have ever handled?’ before featuring his reply, ‘That would be the Sir Issac Newton apple tree- it’s actually growing in my garden’. We now realise that the way this was written could be misleading and want to let you know that Thomas’s tree is grafted from a cutting of the original tree which is located in the historic orchard at Sir Isaac Newton’s birthplace, Woolsthorpe Manor. Thomas has a ‘Flower of Kent’ apple tree which is the same variety as the one Newton saw apples falling from and which gave him the answers to his questions about gravity.
Cuttings of the Sir Isaac Newton apple tree are available all over the world, but there is only one original, and that’s firmly rooted in Woolsthorpe Manor.
If you’d like to buy an apple tree, we can recommend Petersham Nurseries, but if you want to visit the original, then Woolsthorpe Manor’s the place to go: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/woolsthorpe-manor
Apologies if we caused confusion, we didn’t mean to!
Conservation Manager at Woolsthorpe, Margaret Winn, gave us some more information about the tree. The photograph included was taken by Colin Russell.
The Story of the Apple TreeWoolsthorpe Manor, the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton, is home to the Flower of Kent apple tree connected with the myth of Newton’s discovery of the law of gravitation – a myth which Newton himself started. The story of the tree goes back a long way. For generations it had been carefully looked after by the locals who propped it up and built a fence around it. Finally it blew down in a gale in 1820. Some of the broken wood was made into snuff boxes, small trinkets and a chair that are now to be found various collections. Fortunately the tree remained rooted and re-grew strongly from the base into the tree we have now.
The Flower of Kent is a very old type of English apple, which is best described as a tasteless cooker, but can be eaten and stores reasonably well. It is a large odd shaped apple, green and yellow, striped with red.
In the orchard at Woolsthorpe there are several younger ‘Flower of Kent’ apple trees taken from the original, so that when the tree comes to the end of its life, there will be ‘descendants’ to carry on the story. A sketch of the tree in 1840 relates clearly to its unusual shape today.
After Newton’s death in 1727, many biographical materials were assembled, especially by John Conduitt, a Fellow of the Royal Society, amateur writer and natural philosopher, who was Newton’s assistant at the Royal Mint, and later succeeded him as Master of the Mint. He was one of Newton’s closest friends and also married to Newton's half-niece Catherine Barton (in 1717). Newton lived with Catherine and John in London. Although he never seems to have got very far with his biography, its early drafts are of unique value, including a number of anecdotes that Conduitt had heard from Newton himself.
Conduitt described the apple tree event when he wrote about Newton's life:
“he retired again from Cambridge on account of the plague to his mother in Lincolnshire & whilst he was musing in a garden it came into his thought that the same power of gravity (which made an apple fall from the tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from the earth but must extend much farther than was usually thought – Why not as high as the Moon said he to himself & if so that must influence her motion & perhaps retain her in her orbit, whereupon he fell a calculating what would be the effect of that supposition..”
A fuller memoir of Newton was composed for Conduitt by William Stukeley, an antiquarian and Fellow of the Royal Society who lived in Grantham. His account is based principally on interviews with people he met locally who had themselves known Newton in his childhood or youth. He recorded in his 1752 Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life, a conversation with Newton in Kensington on 15 April 1726, in which he said:
“after dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some appletrees, only he, & myself. amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. "why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground," thought he to him self: occasion'd by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood: "why should it not go sideways, or upwards? but constantly to the earths centre? assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. there must be a drawing power in matter. & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths center, not in any side of the earth. therefore dos this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the center. if matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple."
Some have disputed the location and veracity of the tree, but the Woolsthorpe Flower of Kent tree is recognised as one of the most important heritage trees of Britain. The Tree Council have researched the tree and confirmed that it is age-appropriate.
In 1998, work led by Dr Richard Keesing of York University included studies of the tree, dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating, which concluded that there is “considerable evidence to show that the apple tree presently growing at Woolsthorpe and known as 'Newton's apple tree' is in fact the same specimen which was identified in the middle of the eighteenth century and which may now be 350 years old”
Many institutions claim to have descendents of the tree, but apple trees do not come true to variety from a pip – material has to be grafted to be genetically the same. It seems to be possible to prove the variety of a tree but not its direct descendants as all similar types of trees are genetically identical.
Newton never said he was hit on the head by a falling apple! One story suggests that Voltaire told it to insinuate that it took something like a blow on the head for an Englishman to have an original idea, but we have no source reference for this. We do know that Voltaire held Newton in very high regard and attended his funeral.