William & Mary’s Isaac Newton apple trees no longer stand outside Small Hall.
They died in late spring and were removed by Facilities Management. The trees likely succumbed to a bacterial disease known as fire blight.
Martha Case says that she was always concerned about the trees, which were planted with great ceremony outside the university’s physics building in 2014. They were clones — genetically identical — to the tree that dropped the apple that is said to have inspired Isaac Newton to formulate his concept of universal gravitation.
Poor soils, hot humid weather and a tendency for apples to succumb to many diseases made the Newton apple project risky in Williamsburg. “I saw water pooling in that site before the trees were planted and was concerned,” Case said.
Case is the College Conservator of Botanical Collections and an associate professor in William & Mary’s Department of Biology. It’s been a rainy spring here in always-humid Williamsburg and the soil drains poorly. She explained that excess water in soils reduces soil aeration, inhibiting root growth and transport of water and minerals.
Excess water also can start diseases directly in the soil by increasing microbial action, and a surplus of moisture in above-ground parts can hasten the spread of fire blight in flowers – the disease’s common entry point.
She added that plants produce defensive compounds to help fight off disease, but marginal growing conditions can reduce a tree's energy resources to fight off disease and pests.
Case pointed out that her native Michigan can get a lot of rain, yet the sandy loam soil drains quickly and apple growers prosper. But she added that even in well-drained soil, constant rain can cause other issues such as fungal diseases on the leaves.
“The bottom line is, I do not know how much rain played a role in the death of the Newton trees,” she said, “but fire blight is a bad disease of apples. It may have been unstoppable and the excess rain could not have helped.”
Isaac Newton’s tree is a variety known as the Flower of Kent. The William & Mary Flowers of Kent were grown from cuttings from the Newton trees on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, which came from cuttings taken from the British Royal Botanical Gardens and so on, back to the ur-tree at Woolsthorpe Manor.
The trees were prized as tangible connections to Newton, along with the first-edition copy of Sir Isaac’s masterwork Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica retained in the Special Collections Department of the university’s Swem Library.
Joshua Erlich, professor of physics and one of the organizers of the February 2014 dedication ceremony, said the trees are missed.
“Prospective students would see them when they’d come into the building,” he said. “They thought it was really cool that William & Mary had those trees.”
Case said that the trees were doing well for the first few years. “They were growing,” she said. “And we had apples!”
She offers a bright spot amid the gravity of the situation: There are backup Newton Trees.
“I know of at least one growing on campus,” Case said. “And there may be others.”
Establishing a new stand of Newton Trees would not be a trivial operation, she noted. Cuttings from one of the other trees would be grafted onto suitable rootstock and nursed until ready for planting.
Case said the loss of the first group of Newton Trees can help the university understand how to reduce risk associated with growing finicky apples on campus. She noted that the Newton Trees would likely have a better chance at reaching maturity growing in well-drained soil.
However, with climate change predicted to increase heat in the southeast, an increase in soil drainage could also increase the need to supplement with water during droughts.
Discussions about how, or if, to re-Newton the campus have not begun, as far as she knows. So for now, the commemorative bench and marker installed during the dedication event look out on a recently planted tree, one more suitable for Williamsburg’s soil and climate — a young magnolia.