Tree of 40 Fruit

The Lempert Report
August 28, 2014

Innovative ideas don't just grow on trees. Until now….

For artist and Syracuse University professor Sam Van Aken, what began as an art project turned into innovative fruit farming, when he embarked upon the Tree of 40 Fruit. Check out how art and innovation combined to create a striking fruit tree - is this the future?  

Sam Van Aken: The idea for the Tree of 40 Fruit came from a  couple of different places. At the time the project developed I really wanted to make a tree that had different color blossoms. And I knew that stone fruits had to be grafted together and so originally it started with just this idea that fruit could be blossomed together - pink and white and crimson, and that eventually evolved into trees that would bear all these different kinds of fruit. And as I got into the project and realized how many different stone fruit there were, the project really got into preservation, i figured out that I could collapse and entire orchard onto one tree. 

The concept behind it is I like to think that the piece is the beginning of a narrative. For me it's, the number 40 is used throughout Western religion, and it speaks to this number that isn't infinite but isn't a dozen, and so I want that moment when someone sees the tree and sees it bearing all this different fruit, to really start re-thinking and I think it many ways it's done that. Starts a conversation  about how food is produced, and how our agricultural industry works.  There's 40 different varieties of peaches, plums apricots, nectarines, almonds and cherries all grafted to it. 

Van Aken has created and placed about 16 trees in museums, community centers, and private art collections around the country.  To create these trees, he uses a method called chip grafting.

Sam Van Aken: With Chip Grafting what I do is I take a small sliver off a branch, and that small sliver will include the bud, I'll make an incision to the tree that I'm attempting to graft too, I'll use tape which is very similar to sandwich bag, and I wrap it, let it sit for the winter and prune it in spring. Hopefully fingers crossed it will start to grow. Each fruit maintains it's own genetic identity as there’s no hybridization.  The fruit that's produced from it tastes like the tree that the graft originally came from. As to how, it's really just a matter of, what you're doing when you're grafting is lining up the vascular system of the tree. So that there's no exchange of genetic information, just the nutrients and water running through system.

While the Tree of 40 Fruit began as art, it soon became about preserving antique and heirloom varieties. Van Aken sells the Tree of 40 Fruit through his art gallery, the proceeds of which are being used to create an orchard that will serve as an archive of these stone varieties. He wants consumers to experience them as close to nature as possible. 

Sam Van Aken:  I guess as a consumer, one of the things that surprised me growing up on a farm, and being well aware of agriculture, it wasn't until I got into this project that I started to understand the diversity, of vegetables and fruits. There were there plum and peach and apricot varieties that go back thousands of years, and I also found that eating the fruit directly off the tree os so radically different to what you can find in grocery stores and it's something that I found as one of the surpassing aspects. The stone fruit industry, most of it takes place in CA, so it gets shopped across the country, so they're picked a week before they ripen. When a piece of fruit ripens on the tree it absorbs all of the sugars and it tastes so different.  It started as an art work and evolved into something more, the part for me that I really want is that moment where you see this tree with the different fruits, it's kinda striking when you see it.