Tree of 40 fruits a treat for eyes, not just palate

Updated Jan 25, 2016
Artist’s rendering of what Van Aken’s grafted trees will look like after a few years. Photo: Sam Van AkenArtist’s rendering of what Van Aken’s grafted trees will look like after a few years.
Photo: Sam Van Aken

What started as an art project in 2008 for Sam Van Aken has turned into a form of conservation of heirloom stone fruit varieties.

The Tree of 40 Fruits is the Frankenstein’s monster of grafting, featuring 40 different types of peaches, plums, cherries, apricots, nectarines and almonds. Van Aken, an associate professor in Syracuse University’s art department, was originally inspired by the idea of having a tree that blooms in a range of colors such as fuchsia, red, pink, purple and white.

“I’m an artist,” he told NPR. “So the whole project really began with this idea of creating a tree that would blossom in these different colors and would bear these multitude of fruit.”

As Van Aken began searching for distinctive types of stone fruit in New York, he realized that commercial crops of the fruits had reduced the number of varieties commonly available.

Luckily, he found the New York State Agricultural Experimentation Station, which was a 3-acre orchard of antique and heirloom varieties. When the station was about to shut down due to lack of funding, Van Aken bought the land.

So far Van Aken has distributed 16 of these trees in a number of places. Once the trees have matured enough, he hopes they will inspire curiosity and wonder at the different shapes and colors of parts of the tree.

The grafting process is carefully planned and mapped out by Van Aken since the different varieties blossom at different times. He first lets the stock tree grow for three years and slowly adds a few grafts a year until it reaches 40, making it an 8- to 9-year process.

“I think one of the reasons I’ve been able to keep it going for so long is that every year it’s something new,” Van Aken said, “and when you come out here and all the trees are in blossom, it’s really kind of an amazing experience.”

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