Sam Van Aken grew up on a family farm in Reading, Pennsylvania, and is now an award-winning contemporary artist and art professor at Syracuse University. Aken started a project in 2008 after a vegetable grafting experiment reaped interesting results, and the “Tree of 40 Fruit” was born.
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The trees he has since grown—both groundbreaking and beautiful—are the perfect emanation of Aken’s agricultural and artistic backgrounds. Keen to challenge public perception, Aken has shared the progression of his project since the very beginning, and today, the results are quite spectacular.
“First and foremost I see the tree as an artwork,” Aken shared, in interview with Epicurious. “I want the tree to interrupt and transform the everyday. When the tree unexpectedly blossoms in different colors,” he continued, “or you see these different types of fruit hanging from its branches, it not only changes the way you look at it, but it changes the way you perceive [things] in general.”
After the success of Aken’s vegetable-grafting venture, the art professor embarked on his new project using a method he likes to call “sculpture through grafting.” Employing tremendous patience and meticulous methodology, Aken adds to the trees’ branches every single year.
The use of grafting has its roots in history and is considered “one of the oldest of the arts of plant,” according to L.H. Bailey, an American Horticulturist who founded the American Society for Horticultural Science in 1903.
According to a research paper by Charles Melnyk and Elliot Meyerowitz, “It is unknown where or how grafting was first discovered, but it is likely that natural grafting, the process by which two plants touch and fuse limbs or roots in the absence of human interference influenced people’s thinking.”
Today, plant grafting is widely used in orchards, greenhouses, vineyards, and gardens.
Every February and in the spring, Aken collects 12- to 18-inch cuttings from various stone fruit trees from farmers in the New York State area. The cuttings are grafted onto the “Tree of 40 Fruit,” where they will heal and merge with the trees at large.
Each new branch, when assimilated into the collage of branches surrounding it, will eventually bud and produce a different variety of stone fruit. Aken is aiming for six kinds of plums, two nectarines, three apricots, one peach varietal, and almonds.
The pattern is not haphazard. Each individual branch is carefully color-coded so that Aken knows what to expect from each portion of the tree. Stone fruit varietals are chosen for their unique color and bloom, with the overall effect reminiscent of a living sculpture; the colors evoke the illustrations of children’s books, or the wistful animation of Studio Ghibli landscapes.
But this tree is for real.
Aken is currently responsible for curating not one, but 16 hand-grafted, multi-fruit-bearing trees in various locations across the United States. His creations live in museums, universities, and even private homes, and are lovingly nurtured for approximately five years before bearing fruit. Aken visits each tree approximately six times in the odd-looking early years. It often takes three full years to graft all 40 varieties of stone fruit branches and perfect the composition of the tree.
Aken also has conservation in mind. “We are losing diversity in food production,” the artist told Epicurious. “Heirloom, antique, and native varieties that were less commercially viable were disappearing. I saw this as an opportunity to, in some way, preserve these varieties.”
And what happens to the fruit, you may be wondering? “Until I discovered garlic and peppermint repellents, they were a huge hit with the local deer,” Aken revealed. With the pesky fruit snatchers under control, however, Aken now gives most of the trees’ fruit away for people to enjoy.
Nature meets art meets imagination in the “Tree of 40 Fruit.” Aken’s enduring ambition is for a grove of multi-varietal fruit trees in an urban environment, which would be nothing short of an artistic revelation and an animated conversation starter for generations to come.