In a bid to reintroduce Americans to long-forgotten native fruit, a New York sculptor has created an incredible tree that can produce 40 varieties of stone fruit at once.
Sam Van Aken, who is also an art professor at Syracuse University, grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania where grafting was a common practice. However, to him, it always seemed magical. “When I’d seen it done as a child it was Dr. Seuss and Frankenstein and just about everything fantastic,” he said during a Tedx talk last year.
Van Aken has been growing multi-fruit trees since 2008, through a technique called ‘chip grafting’. He starts by taking a slice of a fruit tree that includes buds, and inserts it into a matching incision in a host tree that is at least three years old. He uses electrical tape to hold the pieces together. Soon enough, the “veins” of different trees flow into each other, sharing the same life energy.
At times, Van Aken works with just the buds. He removes healthy buds from one tree and freezes them for a few months. Then, he trims off the buds from the host tree and replaces them with the ones he had frozen. The new buds are wrapped in plastic to create a greenhouse effect. This way, he tricks the host tree into believing the new pieces are a part of itself.
He regards the process as artwork, and the trees are his sculptures, because he is always in control of how the tree morphs by choosing what to graft where. But it took him a lot of trials and failures to perfect the process.
“When I first started, I sort of grafted the branches on,” he said. “So each variety blossoms at a slightly different time. I had a tree that blossomed all on one side, but looked dead on the other. From that point on, I created a timeline of when all these varieties blossom in relationship to each other. So I could essentially sculpt how the tree would blossom.” He keeps a map for each tree – a diagram of sorts.
Van Aken has created 21 ‘Trees of 40 Fruit’ all over America, with seven in New York and six in a small grove in Portland. Three were planted this spring in Illinois, Michigan, and California. The remaining ones have been purchased for private homes and museums – there’s one at the 21C Museum/Hotel in Bentonville, Arkansas, in case you want to check it out for yourself. Van Aken calls that one the most beloved of all his trees, because “from the day it was planted, it seemed to have some draw for people.”
Maintenance is a big part of Van Aken’s work. For the first three years, he makes sure to visit his trees twice a year. Once in spring to prune the branches, and again in the summer to add more grafts. It takes about nine years for each Tree of 40 Fruit to reach its peak – five for the grafts to develop and four for the fruit to actually grow.
Van Aken has created a graphic rendition of what each tree will look like in 10 years’ time, in full blossom, and it is nothing short of a visual delight. He revealed that he only uses stone fruit – fruit with pits – because those species are generally more compatible with each other.
“I travelled around central New York and New York State to look for different varieties of stone fruit,” he said in a National Geographic documentary. Eventually, I was able to find these different heirloom and antique varieties.” He managed to find about 250, most of them unfamiliar to people simply because they aren’t mass produced or available in stores.
Van Aken believes that people are missing out on a variety of tastes just because these fruits do not have a long enough shelf life. Some, he says, are so sweet that “they’ll hurt your teeth.”
“The Trees of 40 Fruit were a way for me to collapse an entire orchard into one tree to preserve varieties and diversity.” Van Aken explained. “Part of the idea was to plant them in locations that people would sort of stumble upon. Once they happen upon these trees, they’d start to question why are the leaves shaped differently, why are they different colors. And then in summer, when you would see all of these different fruit growing on them, it is an artwork.”
Photos: Sam Van Aken/Tree of 40 Fruit, National Geographic video caption