Newton’s Trees at UBC

Land and Food Systems student Sarah Belanger sits under campus apple trees linked to Sir Isaac Newton - photo by Martin Dee
Land and Food Systems student Sarah Belanger sits under campus apple trees linked to Sir Isaac Newton – photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 6 | Jun 7, 2007

Campus apples are direct descendants of scientist’s iconic inspiration

By Basil Waugh

The tale of Sir Isaac Newton and the apple tree, celebrated by historians and cartoonists alike, is one of the most enduring stories in science.

But what many people may not know is that direct descendants of the same apples that inspired Newton to compose his theory of gravity in 1661, have been growing at UBC for almost 40 years.

Just sit under them at your own risk.

“You wouldn’t want one of those apples falling on you. They are pretty big,” says Lorna Warren, widow of John Warren, founding director of TRIUMF, Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics, which is located on UBC’s south campus.

“They look similar to a Granny Smith apple, but they’re a little softer,” she says. “They’re not bad to eat and good in pies too.”

According to Lorna Warren and TRIUMF archival materials, in 1968 John Warren obtained cuttings from a tree that grows in front of the National Physical Laboratory in London, England, which is a granddaughter of the tree that produced the iconic apple that Newton watched fall.

Photos of TRIUMF’s opening ceremony on May 5, 1969 show the first of these trees being planted in the facility’s traffic circle by John Warren and then federal Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce, Jean-Luc Pepin.

Lorna Warren says six more trees of the same stock were later added, laid out with pansy flowerbeds to depict TRIUMF’s logo, a cyclotron magnet.

With no plaque to mark the site, the pansies long gone and many of the TRIUMF faculty who attended the ceremony retired, the story of these seven trees may have been lost, were it not for a recent chance conversation between two cyclists passing by the site.

“The wife of a TRIUMF researcher told me about the trees’ history while we biked by them one morning,” says Art Bomke, a professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems, who rides his bike to work. “She had no idea my background was in agriculture.”

“It’s a pretty neat story,” Bomke says. “Apparently, TRIUMF Prof. Emeritus Erich Vogt always brought some of the apples to his first year course on Newtonian Mechanics.”

Bomke sees the Newton trees as part of an agricultural continuum at UBC that includes the UBC Farm, Vancouver’s only working farmland, and UBC’s Botanical Garden and Research Centre, home of such popular community events as the Apple Festival and Perennial Plant Sale.

“The Newton trees are a fantastic link to a watershed scene in scientific history, but they are also an important part of UBC’s agricultural history,” Bomke says.

TRIUMF (TRI-University Meson Faculty) is one of three subatomic research facilities of its kind in the world and boasts the world’s biggest cyclotron particle accelerator. For more information visit

For more information on the Faculty of Land and Food Systems, visit

Students plant new orchard at campus farm

Most major North American cities would be without food in a week if residents had to rely on their own production, says Sarah Belanger, a fourth-year student in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems.

This daunting reality was one of the reasons Belanger planted an orchard of 150 apple and plum trees at the UBC Farm earlier this year as part of a self-directed studies project.

“With only three per cent of society involved in agriculture, we rely almost completely on food transportation and the grocery store,” says Belanger. “I think more people need to be taking responsibility and learning to grow their own food.”

For a year and a half, Belanger has been immersed in the project, fundraising, consulting with faculty and B.C. orchardists, and leading a committed group of student volunteers who have helped her plant and care for the trees.

“I’d planted gardens before, but nothing this big,” Belanger says. “It was easily the most challenging educational experience I’ve had, but also my most rewarding.”

To increase the educational value of the orchard, Belanger planted full-size and dwarf trees of 70 apple varieties. “I wanted to show people that it is possible to grow fruit in the city. Dwarf trees just need a little space in your yard or a community garden.”

Belanger says the orchard gives students a hands-on classroom to learn about all aspects of agriculture, including organic pest management, irrigation, taxonomy, pruning and pollination.

Belanger says the trees will begin bearing fruit in three years. She hopes the apples — a perennial crop — will be source of income for the UBC Farm and envisions them being sold at UBC’s annual Apple Festival, the farm’s summer market, and Sprouts, UBC’s natural food co-operative.