Award-winning artist and professor Sam Van Aken has managed to accomplish what very few people are able to do - combine art and science together in a project that is as visually stunning, as it is biologically amazing. He has created trees that grow not one or two, but more than 40 types of stone fruit that include numerous kinds of peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines and cherries. What's even more amazing is that many of the fruits are ancient, hard-to-find, varieties.
The 'Tree of 40 Fruit' is the result of many years of research conducted by the Syracuse University art professor. It entails chip grafting buds from different antique, heirloom, and native fruit trees onto a single tree-base (plum in this case), to create entirely unique hybrid specimens. As Van Aken explains in a Tedx Manhattan presentation he made earlier this year, "I take a sliver off one of the trees that includes the bud, I insert it into a like-size incision in the working tree, tape it, let it sit and heal in all winter, then I prune it back and hope that it grows."
The end result is a tree that is everything the professor could have hoped for and more. During the spring, when the various grafted parts yield a bouquet of crimson, pink, purple and white blooms, it is a work of art. In the summer, as the flowers transform into gorgeous, rarely seen stone fruits, the tree becomes a conservation project. What makes the trees even more special is they have been grafted with different varieties of stone fruits, which means that each blooms in its own array of distinctive colors and yields unique produce.
Ironically, when Van Aken began the project, his only aim had been to draw from his farming background to create an unusual work of art - a tree that delighted people with its beautiful colors and eclectic harvest. He chose stone fruits because they have a greater diversity among the species and are also most inter-compatible.
However, as he set about trying to seek them out, he realized that the only place that still grew native, heirloom and hybrid variety of stone fruit species was the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva,NY. Even more alarming was the fact that the orchard was on the verge of being torn down, due to the lack of funding. Fearful that hundreds of varieties of historical native specimens of plum and apricots would disappear forever, Van Aken decided to take over the lease, until he could successfully graft them all onto the trees in his nursery. Suddenly, a simple art undertaking to 'interrupt and transform the everyday', had morphed into a serious conservation project!
So far, Van Aken has created and placed 16 unique trees in museums, community centers and private art collections throughout the USA. The artist & conservationist says he visits each one twice every year - in the spring to prune and in late summer to graft - for three years, until the tree is established. In order to incorporate local varieties of stone fruits, he collaborates with the farmers in the areas the trees are placed in. It takes a total of five years for each tree to develop with all the grafts and another four, before it start to yield all 40 kinds of fruits.
The professor is now working with Chris Thompson, an art historian, entrepreneur and real estate developer to plant small orchards of the 'Tree of 40 Fruit' in urban settings. They plan to begin with a single tree at a new development project at Thompson Point in Portland, Maine. Van Aken says he will plant additional trees as new buildings are added to the massive $110 million USD retail, arts and sports complex that will span over 30 acres, when complete.
Van Aken who now works with over 250 varieties of stone fruit hopes that such installations will raise awareness of the different varieties of delicious plums, peaches and apricots that were once available, and maybe even raise questions about the current lack of variety, at local markets.