The tree of 40 fruit is a piece of art, a research project, and a form of conservation by contemporary artist and Syracuse University art professor Sam Van Aken. Aken has spent years taking different forms of stone fruit and grafting them into a single overarching species of tree. Now many exist. For much of the year, the trees look like just any other. Then, in spring, they bloom to reveal a gorgeous, diverse, striking bouquet of flowers.
Over the course of the next several months, Van Aken’s trees produce an incredible harvest of plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, and almonds. Many of these fruits look like nothing we’ve commonly seen in markets, which are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to varying fruit species.
I remember when reading The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan that at one time, New York was home to many varieties of apples. A lot of these species of apples were used to make different kinds of ciders, but with prohibition looming commercial apple growers had to position their fruit as a dessert of sorts, rather than as a cider-maker. Since people don’t like to eat small, oddly-colored, or misshapen apples, we began to see similar kinds in farmer’s markets based on color, size, and taste. The same is true for other fruits.
As a work of art, the Tree of 40 Fruit transforms the everyday into the extraordinary. As a research project it performs one of the first comprehensive studies of what happens when fruit blossoms in relationship to each other, which is very important when you factor in pollination. As a form of conservation, by placing these trees in places across America, Sam Van Aken is creating his own species of stone fruit trees. Check out his amazing (only 5 minute) TED Talk on how he created the species, and below take a look at Epicurious’ Q/A with him. We didn’t conduct the interview, we’re just passing along the news!
Epicurious: What is the Tree of 40 Fruit and what inspired the project?
Sam Van Aken: At the time this project began I was doing a series of radio hoaxes where I hijacked commercial radio station frequencies and played my own commercials and songs. In addition to becoming acquainted with FCC regulations I also discovered that the term “hoax” comes from “hocus pocus,” which in turn comes from the Latin “hoc est enim corpus miem,” meaning “this is my body” and it’s what the Catholic priest says over the bread during [the] Eucharist, transforming it into the body of Christ. This process is known as transubstantiation and [it] led me to wonder how I could transubstantiate a thing. How could the appearance of a thing remain the same while the reality changed? And so, I transubstantiated a fruit tree. Through the majority of the year it is a normal-looking fruit tree until spring when it blossoms in different tones [of] pink, white, and crimson, and late in summer it bears [more than] 40 different types of fruit.
Epi: What is the goal of the Tree of 40 Fruit and what do you hope to communicate?
SVA: First and foremost I see the tree as an artwork. Like the hoaxes I was doing, I want the tree to interrupt and transform the everyday. When the tree unexpectedly blossoms in different colors, or you see these different types of fruit hanging from its branches, it not only changes the way you look at it, but it changes the way you perceive [things] in general.
As the project evolved, it took on more goals. In trying to find different varieties of stone fruit to create the Tree of 40 Fruit, I realized that for various reasons, including industrialization and the creation of enormous monocultures, we are losing diversity in food production and that heirloom, antique, and native varieties that were less commercially viable were disappearing. I saw this as an opportunity to, in some way, preserve these varieties. In addition to maintaining these varieties in my nursery, I graft them to the Tree of 40 Fruit. Additionally, when I place a Tree of 40 Fruit, I go to local farmers and growers to collect stone fruit varieties and graft them to the trees. In this way they become an archive of the agricultural history of where they are located as well as a means to preserve antique and native varieties.
Epi: You’ve described your artistic process as “sculpting by way of grafting.” Could you explain what that means?
SVA: I currently work with over 250 varieties of stone fruit and developed a timeline of when they blossom in relationship to each other. By grafting these different varieties onto the tree in a certain order I can essentially sculpt how the tree is to blossom.
Epi: Why did you choose to work with stone fruits?
SVA: Stone fruits have [a] greater diversity among the species, and are the most inter-compatible. Although it gets tricky when you start to graft cherries, for the most part one can easily graft between plums, peaches, apricots, nectarines, and even almonds.
Epi: Where and how did you acquire all the different fruit varieties?
SVA: My primary source for most of these varieties was the New York State Agricultural Experiment Stationin Geneva, New York. When I began the project there was an orchard at the Experiment Station with hundreds of different plum and apricot varieties. They planned to tear this orchard out, so I picked up the lease until I could graft all of these varieties onto the trees in my nursery.
Epi: How long does it take to create one of your trees?
SVA: Depending on when the tree is planted it takes about five years to develop each tree and graft 40 varieties to it.
Epi: Do you continue to work on the trees after they’re planted?
SVA: After the tree has been planted, I visit it twice a year, in the spring to prune and [in] late summer to graft, for three years, until the tree is established.
Epi: What happens to all the fruit from your trees?
SVA: Until I discovered garlic and peppermint repellents, they were a huge hit with the local deer, but fortunately we’ve resolved that. I’ve been told by people that have [a tree] at their home that it provides the perfect amount and perfect variety of fruit. So rather than having one variety that produces more than you know what to do with, it provides good amounts of each of the 40 varieties. Since all of these fruit ripen at different times, from July through October, you also aren’t inundated.
Personally, I give away most of the fruit that comes from my trees. For people who aren’t aware of farming and growing, the diversity of these varieties and their characteristic tastes are surprising and they ultimately begin to question why there are only a few types of plums, one type of apricot, and a handful of peach varieties at their local market.
Epi: Each of your trees has the capacity to grow more than 40 different varieties of stone fruits. Can you explain the significance of the number 40?
SVA: The number 40 has been used throughout Western religion to represent a number beyond counting. [Being] interested in this idea of a bounty of fruit coming from one tree, 40 seemed appropriate.
Epi: Do you have any plans for the future of this project?
SVA: I would like to continue to place these trees throughout the country preserving these heirloom, antique, and native fruit varieties. Wherever I place them there is a sense of wonderment that they create through their blossoms, the different fruit, and the process by which they are created.
Eventually, I would like to create a grove or small orchard of these trees in an urban setting. I have always stayed away from artwork that educates people, but to some extent these works in addition to being beautiful and producing fruit cause one to reconsider the possibilities with food and fruit production.