Fruit used to be simple for Sam Van Aken.
“When I went into this project, I thought a plum was a plum,” said Van Aken, a visual artist and art professor at Syracuse University in New York.
That was in 2008, before Van Aken fell down the horticultural rabbit hole, where he has immersed himself in heirloom fruit varieties, historical farming practices and the seemingly magical process of tree grafting, where fruit from one type of tree can be forced to grow on another.
As an artist comfortable using large spaces and natural forces in his work, Van Aken first envisioned planting an orchard of his design. But when the economy crashed and funding for large-scale artwork dried up, a creative solution struck him.
“I was sitting on the idea, I really wanted to pursue it, and I didn’t have any land,” Van Aken said. “Then the thought came that I could just collapse this project into one tree.”
For the Tree of 40 Fruit project, Van Aken has painstakingly cultivated an array of long-forgotten stone fruit varieties and forced them to bloom together on single trees. A slow process by nature, many of his trees have already fruited, a multicolored bounty of yellow, purple, maroon and orange.
Although underway for a few years, the project has received increased attention in recent months after Van Aken spoke in March at TEDx Manhattan, an offshoot of the wildly popular TED series of videos from cutting-edge scientists, researchers and artists from around the world. A video clip of his talk has been viewed more than 154,000 times, yet Van Aken said he never imagined his tree would find such a wide audience.
In October, Van Aken plans to plant a grove of his creations in Portland at the Thompson’s Point development, the first time multiple trees that he has assiduously nurtured will take root in one place. Other trees grow in California, Arkansas, New York state and Massachusetts, among other locations.
Van Aken has planted a dozen trees in different areas across the country, but chose Thompson’s point because of his close relationship with the developer, Chris Thompson, whose own connection with the art world runs deep.
“As buildings come online we’ll add trees to the grove, so as the (Thompson’s Point) project expands, the grove will grow with it,” said Thompson. The grove-cum-art project suits the development where Thompson plans to convert industrial buildings into a complex of housing and office space, all with an eye toward fostering a community atmosphere that’s friendly to artists and creative professionals.
Van Aken, who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania, said in the video clip that he did not consider seriously pursuing agriculture until he embarked on his fruit tree project.
As he searched for varieties of exotic or forgotten fruit to graft onto his tree, he discovered the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, about an hour away from Syracuse, where he teaches.
The station was a repository for the history of New York stone fruit agriculture. Once a hub of fruit growing in the United States, New York’s orchards now largely produce apples; most stone fruit in the United States is grown thousands of miles away in the Central Valley in California.
But in 2011, the stone fruit orchard at the agricultural station and its trees were designated for demolition for a lack of funding. Before the trees were torn out, Van Aken harvested many buds to graft onto his trees in the hopes of preserving the heirloom, hybrid and antique varieties of plums, peaches, nectarines and other fruit that over the years had been discarded by big growers. (Such growers prefer sturdy, shippable fruit to the – often more delicate – tastier varieties.)
The practice of grafting has been a bedrock of fruit production going back as far as fruit cultivation itself, said Ronald Perry, a horticulture professor at the University of Michigan.
What makes Van Aken’s project unusual is that grafting is usually a method to achieve uniform fruits, not for creating artificial diversity.
“Its been done probably for 3,000 years,” Perry said. “In the context of the fruit industry, its a fairly common thing. Its something that we take for granted.”
Where Van Aken could run into trouble, Perry said, is that some varieties of stone fruit resist diseases to which other varieties are susceptible. Some types of fruit also sap a tree’s energy more than others, which could lead to unequal growth. Fruit trees of any variety require attention, and the Tree of 40 Fruit will likely be even needier, he said.
Van Aken acquired a lease on the former agricultural station property and began grafting the heirloom varieties onto his rootstock, carefully splicing together buds from peaches, plums, nectarines, cherries and almonds.
The grafting process itself is relatively simple: a small portion of a tree, including the next year’s bud, is cut from one variety of fruit tree and wrapped onto an incised area of another host tree. During the winter, the tree takes up the grafted portion but retains the different fruit variety.
Slowly over years, Van Aken has grown the trees from rootstock and mapped out their branches, delineating what fruit they would eventually bear.
His grove of four in Portland, will continue to receive grafts for three years after they are planted, including species and hybrids that were once native to Maine.
“If at all possible, I collect local varieties,” Van Aken said, “and that way it sort of becomes the history of that place, too.”