Imagine a mythical tree that grows not one, but forty different types of fruits, allowing people to harvest an ample amount of fruits at different times of the year. Well, this fantastical tree may not be so far-fetched anymore: New York-based artist Sam Van Aken has created what he calls the Tree of 40 Fruit through a series of successful grafting procedures, which can produce dozens of different types of stone fruits — such as peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries and even almonds — all on one single tree.
Grafting is a well-known horticultural technique where a section of stem from one cultivar is inserted onto the stock of another cultivar, where it continues to grow, effectively joining the two plants as one. Van Aken, who is also an art professor at Syracuse University, was inspired by a childhood spent on a farm in his fruit-growing experiments. In his research, Van Aken found that fruit tree cultivars are not as geo-spatially and biologically diverse as he initially thought; in fact, there seemed to be too many fruit-growing monocultures, and not many locally grown native varieties. Check out his story on TED:
In his search for native varieties of fruits to grow and conserve, Van Aken eventually took over the lease for an orchard at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station near Geneva, New York in 2008. This one orchard, which was about to face closure due to lack of funding, grew a number of heirloom varieties of fruit, some hundreds of years old, which might have been lost forever.
© Sam Van Aken
Now responsible for over 250 varieties of stone fruit, Van Aken then began the the long process of grafting over 40 distinct varieties onto a single tree. Van Aken’s hybridized trees are an “archive of agricultural history,” created through a process where he horticulturally “designs” each tree, selecting species that will flower and produce fruit at different times of the year.
© Sam Van Aken
The result is a sufficient and varied abundance, as Van Aken explains in an interview with Epicurious:
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.
© Sam Van Aken
The choice of only 40 varieties also has mythical roots and is an allegory for creation, 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. Like the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, these trees are a potential; they are the beginning of a narrative that transforms the site they are located in. 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.
So far, Van Aken has grown sixteen Trees of 40 Fruit, which have been planted in various institutions and community centres around the United States, and he intends to grow small urban orchards filled with these trees in the future.
Van Aken aptly calls the tree an “artwork, research experiment, form of conservation” — its creation is a gesture of resistance against agricultural monocultures, and could be the future of our locally grown food someday. More over at TED, Sam Van Aken’s website and the Tree of Forty Fruit.
[Hat Tip: Albert M.]