- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2000

EDGEWATER, Md. St. John's College is one step closer to getting its own versof the apple tree that inspired Isaac Newton's theory of gravityion more than three centuries ago.
Two sapling descendants of that famous tree have been growing steadily since December when the seeds were given to horticulturist Mollie Ridout. Now one is almost 18 inches tall and the other is nearly 5 inches tall.
"Things have been growing well this summer with all of the rain," said Ms. Ridout, director of horticulture for London Town House and Gardens near Annapolis, where the saplings are housed.
"They're both healthy," she said.
Ms. Ridout said growing trees from seeds has been challenging.
"There are typically 10 to 16 seeds in an apple. This one had only two," Ms. Ridout said. "It didn't give me very many chances to make mistakes."
According to legend, Newton was sitting under a tree at his mother's estate in Lincolnshire, England, when he was hit on the head by an apple and was inspired to write his theory of gravity.
"When I first heard they had an apple from Sir Isaac Newton's apple tree, I said 'Yeah, right,' " Ms. Ridout said.
After researching on the Internet, though, she learned that several trees in England could trace their lineage directly back to the Newton tree.
The St. John's Class of '99 bought an apple taken from one of those trees.
"It was the biggest apple I had ever seen. It was soft and squishy after traveling overseas," Ms. Ridout said.
The apple arrived from England last fall and was cut open in December, when the two seeds were put in wet sand to mimic the kind of natural conditions apple seeds would face in winter, she said.
The two seeds were kept in separate locations, in case a fire or other disaster would strike one of the buildings, Ms. Ridout said.
Growing apple trees is not new to Ms. Ridout, who is also working on growing a dozen apple trees from the 18th century for London Town Gardens.
The unusual part of the Newton trees is that they are being grown from seeds; most trees propagated today use grafting to regulate their size.
"People don't grow apple trees from seeds very often anymore," she said.
The seeds began to germinate in the sand in March and were put outside in plastic containers in May, Ms. Ridout said. They are kept in a small wire cage to keep groundhogs from tampering with them, and are carefully inspected for disease and insects.
Because the trees are being grown naturally, there is no way to regulate their size, which is why the two seeds have sprouted to different heights, Ms. Ridout said.
Ms. Ridout will supervise the saplings' growth for the next two to three years, until they are roughly 4 feet tall, when one will be given to St. John's College. The other tree will stay at London Town Gardens as a gift from the school.
The gift was especially appropriate for St. John's, as it has a strong focus on classic writers, including Newton, said Harvey M. Flaumenhaft, dean of the 450-student St. John's College.
"Every one of our junior year students spends a good hunk of his of her time reading Newton's 'Principia,' " Mr. Flaumenhaft said. "He's a major figure in our curriculum."
The Newton tree will be a welcome addition to the campus, which lost its Liberty Tree to a thunderstorm last fall. Legend has it the Liberty Tree was one of several sites where patriots gathered to plan the Revolutionary War.
The apple trees should be able to produce fruit in five years and could grow up to 40 feet tall in another decade, Ms. Ridout said. From her experience, apples grown from older varieties of trees tend to taste better, a possible boon to future St. John's students.
"I'm kind of waiting to see how they do," Ms. Ridout said. "They're my babies."

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