Contemporary artist and Syracuse University art professor Sam Van Aken, grew the first Tree of 40 Fruit, a hybrid fruit tree that produces over 40 varieties of fruit, as a form of artistic expression.
But the trees (there are now over 16 in museums and community centers across the U.S.) are also sparking an important conversation about our lack of food diversity.
Van Aken has over 250 stone fruit varieties he sources from. When he places a tree, Van Aken goes to local farmers in the area and collects native varieties. He then grafts the varieties onto the tree. Each fruit has its own timeline for when it will blossom, allowing Van Aken to “sculpt” the tree to his liking. The trees produce plums, peaches, apricots almonds and more. Once a tree is planted, it takes about 5 years to graft 40 varieties of fruit.
While the project was intended, first and foremost, as art, it evolved during the process. In an interview with Epicurious, Van Aken said,”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.”
He now sees the grafting as a way to preserve these dwindling varieties. Van Aken got the majority of his varieties from New York State Agriculture Experiment Station, an orchard in Geneva, New York. After they decided to tear down the orchard, Van Aken took over the lease until he finished grafting all its varieties onto his own trees.
Van Aken gives most of the fruit from his trees away. But many families, he said, report that the tree produces the perfect amount of fruit. Because different fruits bloom at different times (July through October) they didn’t feel inundated by a single variety of fruit at any given period of time.
Photo: Sam Van Aken
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