Tree of 40 Fruit: Merging Art and Agriculture

July 13, 2015
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tree of 40 fruit
Photography by Sam Van Aken

By Kerri Stenson

When he left his Pennsylvania family farm as a teen, contemporary artist and Syracuse University art professor Sam Van Aken did not imagine himself returning to his farming roots. But he has done just that, with an extraordinary twist.

In his latest work, the Tree of 40 Fruit, Van Aken has merged the worlds of art and agriculture by creating a series of hybridized fruit trees that grow over 40 varieties of stone fruit, from peaches, plums, apricots and nectarines to cherries and almonds.

Having some familiarity with the process of grafting from his farming youth, and inspired by the concept of creating an orchard that would blossom in a particular pattern, Van Aken realized he could collapse an entire orchard onto one tree and that one tree would blossom in beautifully varied shades of pink, crimson and white, at different times, and then bear 40 different varieties of fruit throughout the summer.

“My ideas with grafting go back to 2001. There were plastic fruits lying around and I put them together in weird combinations—which looked scientific and also super sexualized. That evolved into, ‘I could do this with plants,’ and that led to trees and orchards, which ended up back at one single tree,” he explains.

So Van Aken traveled New York in search of stone fruit because “there is so much diversity and capability amongst them,” but discovered that while New York was once the largest producer of plums, due to market forces in the 1920s the state switched its production to apples. “Then I really started to get into it,” said Van Aken, because he discovered there were so many heirloom and antique varieties that are no longer produced or commercially available. “When I started this project I thought there were purple plums and blue plums. I see this [tree] inspiring awareness—about the diversity in food that we have forgotten.”

Originally Van Aken thought he was going to graft 100 varieties, which was “very ambitious.” Then he figured that the number 40 is “used throughout Western religions and in the government to describe ‘a lot’… I borrowed the number from religion but didn’t anticipate it having a religious meaning.” Which is the thing about art, says Van Aken.. “You don’t know the outcome. It leads you to places you might not know where you are going until you get there.”

Not formerly a particularly patient person, Van Aken explains the long and intricate process of how he creates the trees.

“I take a piece of root stock—using Luther Burbank plum variety stocks that are better for growing stone fruit. He [Luther Burbank] was a wizard of hybridizing. The DNAs of the varieties graft to it more easily.”

Van Aken then grafts the branch onto the root and lets it grow for three years. He visits the tree twice a year to continue grafting and pruning into the form he wants and after three to four years, there are four to five primary branches. It’s a process called “budding,” where Van Aken takes a sliver of the tree he want to use and puts it in an incision in the root stock, wraps it with plastic for the winter, and then prunes in the spring and “pray[s] the graft took. The varieties all have different growth rates, so I feel like I’m fighting nature most of the time.”

And the result is something magical. For Van Aken the magic is in the bloom. For others it is also the ongoing and varied summer bounty of stone fruit. For all, it is a conversation piece. It inspires awe and makes us think—about the potential devastation of monoculture, the concept of innovation breathing life into our food system, and the meaningful interpretation of contemporary art.

“I don’t really go for messages. I thought of the trees as being the beginning of a narrative. I wanted it to be something that you stumbled upon and then once you see it, you notice that something is different. Through metaphor and form; I like for that to be the beginning of the story.”

When asked about his next step, Van Aken, now a licensed commercial farmer with a greenhouse on the campus of and supported by Syracuse University, says, “I have one of the larger plum collections east of the Rockies right now. In a weird way I sorta feel like the caretaker for them.”

So, when he came across a 17th century German term, streuobstwiese (meaning to scatter seeds carefully), which is a community-owned meadow orchard, he decided that the next phase would be to plant some of these orchards. Not only would they be cared for by and benefit the community in which they are planted, but the orchards will also serve to help preserve heirloom stone fruit varieties and serve as a resource to growers.

While Van Aken’s special trees are currently planted on the East Coast, coming this fall Van Aken will plant his first local Tree of 40 Fruit right here at the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose. We can’t wait.

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