Apple trees have long been a part of human history, as one of the first cultivated trees, but a tree of the ‘Flower of Kent’ variety inspired one of the biggest scientific discoveries in centuries. The so called ‘gravity tree’ is located on the grounds of Woolsthorpe Manor, the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton.
Did an apple really fall on Newton’s head?
The legend goes that Newton was sitting beneath the tree when an apple fell and struck him on the head, sparking the a-ha moment and discovery of gravity. Surprisingly, the reality is not too far off.
While still a student at Cambridge University, an outbreak of the bubonic plague temporarily closed the university and sent him home for 4 years. While there, he continued to experiment with light and motion. One fateful day in 1666, he observed an apple fall from the tree, and began to think about the force that pulled it to the ground, and how that force applied to larger objects such as the moon and other planets. It would be another 20 years before he published his law of universal gravitation in the landmark book Principia.
A year before his death, he confirmed the account with his eventual biographer William Stukeley.
“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank thea under the shade of some apple trees… he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind…. occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood.”
When he first shared the story, there was little doubt as to the which tree inspired the epiphany, as only one apple tree was growing in his garden. The tree was first planted more than 400 years ago. As its name suggests, the ‘Flower of Kent’ apple tree originates from Kent, England, and was cultivated as a cooking apple.
By today’s standards, the Flower of Kent apples are not particularly tasty. With more than 7500 types of apples recorded, the competition is tough. Apples have been cultivated for thousands of years, but in recent centuries their taste has become something of an art form. There are varieties for eating raw, cooking into pies, making jams and compotes, as well as bitter and sour apples for cider.
Newton’s tree is still alive – sort of
Newton’s tree continued to grow on the grounds until 1820, when a storm blew down the aging trunk. Visitors came to find the tree lying on the ground. Pieces of broken wood were taken to make small trinkets and boxes. Fortunately, a large part of the tree was able to be saved and rerooted in the same garden.
Rerooting is a process that involves taking a branch or clipping of a living tree and placing it into water for a long period of time. When new roots start growing from the base, it can be replanted. This process can make it unclear when exactly one tree’s life ends and another begins. Typically the ‘clones’ are considered a new plant, but in the case of the gravity tree, it seems that the rerooted tree was a much larger trunk, and it’s considered to be the same tree. Today, the tree remains firmly rooted in the garden of Woolsthorpe Manor, which is now managed by the National Trust.
Newton Trees on University campuses around the world
Flower of Kent apples were never widely cultivated, and nowadays they are extremely rare. Remarkably, virtually all living Flower of Kent apple trees can be traced back to the humble tree on the grounds of Woolsthorpe Manor. Due to its accidental contribution to modern science, individual trees are found on university campuses around the world. By providing a direct link to Newton and his incredible discoveries, the trees continue to inspire a new generation of physicists and mathematicians.