The Tree of 40 Fruit Preserves the Past and Raises Questions About our Agricultural Future

Artist rendition of mature Tree of 40 Fruit
Artist rendition of mature Tree of 40 Fruit courtesy of Sam Van Aken

Sam Van Aken, artist and associate professor in the Syracuse University art department created  The Tree of 40 Fruit;  an ongoing art series of hybridized fruit trees. The trees display a rainbow of blossoms in the spring while preserving heirloom stone fruit not commercially produced or available

“I’m an artist. So the whole project really began with this idea of creating a tree that would blossom in these different colors and would bear these multitude of fruit,” Van Aken told CBS news. He soon realized, however, how hard it is to find so many distinct varieties of fruit in New York. Most markets only carry a few varieties and most of them are grown in California.

Installation at Syracuse University.
Installation at Syracuse University. Photo courtesy of Sam Van Aken.

He then discovered the New York State Agricultural Experimentation Station, a 125-year-old institution that preserves and produces fruit. They were going to rip up their three-acre stone fruit orchards due to a lack of funding. Many of the trees were heirloom varieties and when he began to understand the history behind these fruits, as so often happens with an art project, the nature and direction of his venture changed along the way and took on a life of its own; literally.

In 2008 Van Aken purchased the orchards and began compressing them into one magnificent tree, now not only for the original artistic reasons but also to preserve these heirloom varieties of fruit. He may be the only person who currently has several of these varieties.

The Method

When I first ran across this I thought it was another case of genetic engineering, but happily I was wrong. Van Aken, who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, uses a technique that has been around for millennia; tree grafting. Grafting involves taking a branch of one tree (known as the scion) and inserting it onto another tree (known as the stock.)

Many commercial fruit growers employ grafting using stock trees that work well in their climate. Van Aken says, “nurseries now, what they’ll do is they’ll sell combination trees, which are two varieties that will cross-pollinate each other, so you’ll get a better fruit set.”

When selecting fruit Van Aken tries to select heirloom, locally grown, stone fruit which may not be deemed commercially viable. The idea of commercial viability is why we generally only see orange carrots and white potatoes, for example, when they actually grow in a variety of colors.

Sam Van Aken 2013 Harvest
Photo courtesy of Sam Van Aken.

The artist explained to Epicurious that “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,”

Each tree takes about five years to develop and produces a selection of apricots, plums, peaches, nectarines, and cherries.

The Symbolism

According to Van Aken’s website “As a symbolic number found throughout western religion, culture, and even within government, the number 40 symbolizes the infinite, a bounty that is beyond calculation…The far-reaching implications of these sculptures include issues of genetic engineering, biodiversity versus food monoculture, and, ultimately, the symbiosis of humankind’s relation to nature. As an allegorical sculpture Van Aken’s Trees of 40 Fruit begins a dialogue.”

Installation at San Jose Museum of Art.
Installation at San Jose Museum of Art. Photo courtesy of Sam Van Aken.

 The Challenges

For now he says his greatest challenges are battling squirrels, chipmunks, deer and groundhogs.

Sam Van Aken Nursery
Photo of the artist’s nursery courtesy of Sam Van Aken .

“During the summer in the nursery, it’s crazy,” Van Aken said. “The groundhog was hanging upside down, chewing on the fruit.”

“I get very Caddyshack,” he continues. “I’m a lot like Bill Murray during the summer.”

The Future 

Van Aken would eventually like to see his trees planted all across America in places where they will be on 24/7 public view.

Map Map showing current locations of Tree of 40 Fruit installations.
Map showing current locations of Tree of 40 Fruit installations. Map courtesy of Sam Van Aken.

I’ll leave you here with the artist’s own words in this video of his appearance at TEDx in Manhattan.






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