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This apple proved too tempting

Rare fruit nabbed from tree at MIT

Here's a modern tale ripped from the Bible: The fruit hung before them, and just this fall, someone at MIT could not resist.

In the campus version of the Genesis story, though, the tree of knowledge doesn't claim roots in Eden, but rather in England, a descendant of the apple tree under which Sir Isaac Newton is said to have sat when he had his eureka moment about the law of gravity.

The tree, a rare Flower of Kent or Malus domestica variety, stands in the President's Garden and was donated by an MIT alumnus in 1977 , when it was hardly more than a 12-inch twig.

Now close to 20 feet in height, the tree bore this year what is thought to be its first fruit: a single green, Granny Smith lookalike.

"It was the first time I've seen an apple on that tree," said Norman Magnuson , head of grounds services at MIT, who has been caring for the tree since its arrival on campus.

But the lone apple was plucked early. "I have no idea what happened to it," said Magnuson. "I wish we could have preserved it."

Although the tree reached maturity years ago, it likely hasn't borne fruit because it needs another apple tree nearby for pollination. The only other apple trees in the garden are crab apples, which don't pollinate this variety of apple, according to John Parker, a professor of plant genetics at Cambridge University in England. So it was a bit mysterious how it was pollinated at all. Magnuson said he thinks the cross-pollinator was an apple tree on the other side of one of the buildings that border the garden, an unusual feat, but not an impossible one.

Ed Vetter of Dallas, an MIT alumnus from the class of 1942, donated the tree after receiving it from the National Bureau of Standards for his work as the US deputy secretary of commerce during the Ford administration.

The pedigreed tree was a graft cut from another reputed descendant of Newton's apple tree in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden in England. "It's a genuine cutting; it has all its credentials," Vetter said, "which were attested to by the US government. And we all know the government would never lie."

When he transported the tree to MIT, Vetter carried it in a tin 4-gallon coffee can. "I'm impressed with how much it's grown," he said. "And that it's got fruit, even though there are no other real apple trees in that yard."

Vetter, an apple lover, said, "The last thing I needed was an apple tree in my yard in Dallas. The weather here isn't very kind to a Northern breed."

Sir Isaac Newton was rumored to have been sitting under a Flower of Kent apple tree in the 1660s when an apple fell on his head and sparked his discovery of the law of universal gravitation .

"The story is a bit mythic," said Parker, the plant geneticist who also directs the Botanic Garden at Cambridge University. Newton had attended that university and lived in Woolsthorpe Manor to the north, in Lincolnshire.

"In the 18th century, a story got about with falling apples and gravity, and an apple tree was noted in a late etching of Woolsthorpe. The tree would have been too old for it to have been the tree. Apple trees are never more than 70 to 100 years old," Parker said.

He also explained that the Woolsthorpe tree fell down in 1820 and reputedly put up another shoot and it is from that shoot that all the descendant trees have been cut. There are two, planted in the 1950s , at Cambridge University, one in the botanic garden and another at Trinity College , where Newton attended school.

Parker, a specialist on apple trees, said this variety usually bears fruit when it is 5 years old, with the proper pollinators. He said his Newton tree typically produces only two or three disease-covered fruits each autumn. But this year, it produced about 250 apples.

"It was the best year for apples in England I have ever seen," he said.

And he's been tasting them, too. "It is quite a good dessert apple," he said. "Sweet, but with a slightly acidic tang and a good aroma."

Now the mystery remains, does the fruit at MIT taste as sweet? And has some lucky student had a eureka of his or her own?

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